Branding an elephant

By Brandon Sides

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Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

Two of the Cannes Lions advertising awards were not presented to the luxury brand BMW, nor were they given to the clever marketers behind Google. Rather, the judges determined our very own President Barack Obama to have led the best marketing campaign of 2008.

Commentators chalked up Obama’s 2008 win to a variety of factors: his use of social media, his frequent and favorable press coverage and the declining public image of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. These reasons, among others, certainly contributed to Obama’s victory. Another less appreciated factor was Obama’s mastery of branding. His election victories reveal that outdated Republican campaigns carry little weight against a powerful pitch. To steal the 2016 win, the GOP needs to adjust for its shortcomings in advertising.

In 2007, Internet pages, city walls and television screens were adorned with an iconic image. That image was Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” stencil, and it in part established Obama’s brand. It strikes the viewer as American: the red, white and blue colors immediately render the candidate as a patriot. It’s optimistic, too: he’s looking upward with a determined face that rests atop the word “HOPE.” The stencil was also easily reproducible: designers from all over the Web imitated this image and sold Obama’s pitch for him through social media. Fairey’s “Hope” poster introduced Americans to an attractive optimistic message.

It turns out that such a message nearly always captures America’s heart. After Obama’s 2008 win, the University of Pennsylvania scrutinized the media to determine the role optimism played in the campaign. Its Positive Psychology Center discovered that “once again, the more hopeful candidate, Barack Obama, has won election.” Penn’s study grounds itself in Daniel Seligman’s positive psychology classic, “Learned Optimism.” Seligman’s data shows that, nine times out of 10, the public elected the candidate between 1948 and 1984 who conveyed more hope than his opponents. At the time of that 1988 research, Penn’s experts had predicted a victory for the Republican candidate, George H. W. Bush.

It appears that Obama has been reading up on his positive psychology, whereas his opponents have barely skimmed the outlines. Seligman’s research predicts that the more optimistic candidate will increase their campaigning efforts right before the election, and that’s just what Obama did weeks before Americans cast their votes in 2008. Meanwhile, John McCain was cutting back on the frequency of his campaign stops and retreating from the public’s eye. Obama’s optimistic “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can” slogans in part secured his first victory. At the same time, McCain focused on depicting his opponent as a “shadowy figure.” Seligman’s research indicates that any negativity, even if it’s used to attack a political opponent, can only harm a candidate’s chances.

A Super PAC has already pledged its support for Clinton; Obama has maintained a steady approval rating and Clinton will likely borrow from her predecessor’s campaign strategies. The GOP, on the other hand, needs a PR makeover. The College Republican National Committee released its 2013 report which urges the party to reconstruct its damaged image. The issue of same-sex marriage “repeatedly came up as one that made young voters wary of supporting the GOP.” A quarter indicated that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who opposed same-sex marriage. The survey’s Latinos and Latinas worried Republican candidates didn’t understand differences between legal and illegal immigration. Only 25 percent believed that Mitt Romney’s policies would stimulate jobs for American youth.

It’s likely that a few 2016 GOP candidates do understand differences between legal and illegal immigration. It’s also likely that some wouldn’t interfere with same-sex legislation, as Chris Christie recently did in New Jersey. And perhaps a Romney victory would have brought a surge of jobs to American yuppies. The next Republican candidate may just be a better pick for conservative voters than they’ll be led to believe. But young and other undecided Republicans refuse to support their party because of its brand: a fractured Etch a Sketch board that’s inconsistent on social issues, subservient to big business and out of touch with a new generation. Its image is broken, and its image is preventing it from controlling the executive office.

The Republicans needs to steal from Obama’s playbook. The candidate who won in recent years followed a very specific formula. He constructed a consistent brand, successfully pitched it and sold it to customers who were eager for a dose of optimism. The runner-ups failed to follow suit. Without effective marketing, the Grand Old Party will again lose to the better salespeople.

Brandon Sides is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]