Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rebranding McCain

Apologies to all for being away so long. If you haven't heard, back in May, my family and I made a sudden decision to move to Tokyo for the year, which led to a distracting three months of preparations. We've been here now for two weeks, are mostly settled in, and are loving life in this overwhelming, crazy, wonderful city.

I've been meaning to offer some thoughts on where John McCain is most vulnerable to being rebranded, but I think that exercise might have been rendered academic now that McCain has chosen to commit Suicide By Palin. Still, branding and politics are two subjects that interest me mightily, and their intersection even more so. So here are a few observations.

I've finally finished watching the major speeches from the Democratic convention. I think the Dems mostly did a good job. Like Glenn Greenwald, I would have liked to see more about the current administration's radicalism and contempt for the Constitution. I also would have liked to see a more subtle and systematic attempt to rebrand McCain.

For me, a brand is the emotional connection a consumer feels with a product or service (for some earlier thoughts on the subject with regard to Clinton and Obama, check out Brand, Market Adoption, and President Obama). Brand is what the product stands for; it's why a consumer wants to be associated with the product.

What's McCain's brand? I think you can sum it up in a few phrases. War hero. National security expert. Straight-talking maverick. (Bear in mind that for the moment we're talking about brand, and not the extent to which the brand is supported or contradicted by the underlying product). Given that McCain's marketing team wants consumers to buy their product for the presidency, I'd call McCain's brand strong and appropriate to the task at hand. The challenge for the Democrats, therefore, is to change the brand. The question is, how.

Once a brand is established in the consumer's mind, it's difficult to change it in the absence of a change in the underlying product. Some brands can be extended in certain directions; the trick lies in knowing which brands can be extended and in what ways. As a general matter, you can't turn a brand into something entirely new. You have to build on, and subtly shift, something you already have. Even a relatively logical change -- and one supported by the product's name -- like Amazon's shift from online bookseller to online general merchandise shopping mall, was difficult and took a lot of time and effort.

So the Democrats would be ill-advised to try to take on McCain's brand head-on. What they need to do instead is to work with the brand as it currently exists in consumers' minds and then subtly reshape it. Republicans are generally good at this game. Look at what they've tried to do in rebranding Obama as a "celebrity." Obama's brand involves a rare kind of political charisma, and rather than deny that charisma, the Republican marketing machine has tried to shift the way consumers look at it. The pitch isn't, "He's not charismatic," which no one would accept; it's "Sure, he's charismatic -- he's a celebrity,after all, like Paris Hilton, who BTW isn't qualified to be president" (although I have to say, Paris is a lot more articulate than McCain, and marketing-savvy, too).

I think the way to rebrand McCain is first to not argue about the current brand. People who believe McCain is a national security expert because he can keep a straight face while uttering helium-filled platitudes like "I'll follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell" and "I'll be Hamas's worst nightmare" and "We are all Georgians now," while ignoring his belief that even in retrospect invading Iraq was a good idea, along with his proven inability, for example, to distinguish Shia from Sunni, or locate the borders of Pakistan or Iraq, or know that Czechoslovakia hasn't been a country since 1992, won't be persuaded by the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Similarly, people who believe McCain is a straight-talking maverick despite his reversals on Iraq, torture, abortion, tax cuts, offshore drilling, the religious right -- in fact, can you come up with a topic on which McCain has been consistent? -- are already letting the brand blind them to the facts, so pointing out the facts will be of limited utility. Nor is there any reason to hope that people who believe being shot down and held as a POW in itself qualifies a candidate to be Commander-in-Chief and insulates that candidate from questions about his qualifications are amenable to an alteration in their underlying worldview.

(On the convincibility continuum, people who continue to believe McCain is serious about national security -- that he puts "Country First" -- even in the face of his pick for vice president, are near clinical. The Wall Street Journal's attempts to justify the choice were particularly entertaining. They praised it as "a daring pick because Mrs. Palin has never faced national scrutiny and hasn't had to deal with foreign policy." Hasn't had to deal with it! Meaning, she might be an absolute expert on the subject; she just hasn't had the opportunity to demonstrate her awesome abilities. It's like calling a used car "pre-owned" -- sure it was owned, but maybe it wasn't ever driven? And this was great, too: "We suspect her record of fighting the status quo was uppermost in John McCain's decision." The woman part? Total accident! Fox and Cindy McCain have argued for Palin's foreign policy credibility because "Alaska is close to Russia," and no, I am not making this up. And here's a hilarious parody of right-wing attempts to justify this unjustifiable choice.).

What the Democrats need to do is accept all the premises of McCain's brand -- but then to ask, "What happened? McCain was all those things, and we loved him for it. But he's changed. He's not the man he once was."

Notice how small is the disagreement inherent in this pitch. It doesn't deny adherents to McCain's brand their fundamental belief; instead, it accepts and agrees with that belief. It's therefore able to get past defenses and open up a small question, a question which comes across as fair and reasonable given the overall broad agreement on which the question rests. "What happened to him?"

The only Democrat I saw do anything like this at the convention was John Kerry, who repeatedly contrasted Senator McCain and Candidate McCain. The contrast was useful, but I think it could have been more effective. It needed to be hammered home by more speakers, and consistently employed in service of the question: "What happened to John McCain?"

Once McCain brand loyalists accept that something has changed, they can start to see him more for what he really is (or, if you think I'm being too partisan, they can see him in the way the Democrats want him to be seen rather than in the way he wants to be seen). The emotional distance for such changed perceptions is short. It's not, "I was all wrong about McCain;" it's, "I was right about McCain... but he's changed." And that small shift would be enough. What matters for an election (or for the success of any product) isn't what the brand was; what matters is what the brand is on the day people are making up their minds about buying it.

"He's not the man he once was" is also obvious code for, "At 72 -- and 76, if he serves a full term -- McCain is too old." Democrats will be called on their use of this code. This would be desirable. It would be a backdoor way of creating nonstop coverage of McCain's age, in the guise of "Are Democrats playing the age card?":

Television Pseudo-Journalist: "You said, 'What's happened to John McCain? He's not the man he was.' Isn't this code for 'McCain is too old?'"

Democratic Spokesman: "No, it's not. Whether a man who would be 76 if he serves one full term is too old for the job is for the American people to decide. It's a comment instead on what happened to a once-principled politician. After all, John McCain was against torture before he was for it, he was against tax cuts for the rich before he was for them, he called theocrats 'agents of intolerance' before embracing them, etc. John McCain has made more misstatements, leveled more outright falsehoods, and changed his positions on more issues in less time than any politician in recent memory, and the American people have a right to know why. Is he just pandering? What does he really believe? What could we expect of him if he were to become president?"

In the midst of this kind of coverage, McCain's ongoing misstatements would have a framework in which they could be understood: "He's a national security expert, so if he's making mistakes on such fundamental points, it can only mean that he's slipping. Can we risk putting someone of such declining capacity in the White House?"

No, we can't.

I'm not a Democrat, and I'm not otherwise comfortable with the notion of the Democrats gaining a simultaneous lock on Congress, the Senate, and the Presidency. But if they're going to become a serious party again, the Republicans need a near-death experience. If you care about the party -- and about the country -- help provide that experience in November.