How much of politics is about Branding?

Before getting into this, let’s talk about the influence of brands in our lives.  One of my favorite quotes from Ze Frank defines a Brand as “The emotional aftertaste after a set of experiences.”  Whether we’re choosing a product, a business or even a politician, a brand is largely that emotional response or feeling we have after interactions- positive, negative, or neutral.

In commerce, it’s often really hard to get people to switch from one brand of product to another.  We largely use the brands we were brought up with, unless we find a real reason to switch- recall, a new set of experiences, a huge price differential – you name it, but it takes something pretty drastic to get people to make a new choice and reprogram them from a default choice.

For business, this means that there’s probably only a few windows in which to gain brand loyalty of people, because once they make a choice and identify themselves with that choice, getting them to change is pretty difficult.  If you grew up with Pepsi, Pepsi it is, until it’s unavailable or you move in with a die-hard Coke drinker, and have a different set of experiences.  This is probably why I still drink Tab soda- it was the first diet soft drink, I drank it growing up, and now go to great lengths to maintain a supply even though it isn’t always available.  My kids are Tab drinkers, too, and it’s almost become part of my brand, as everybody remarks on the pink cans I carry around with me.

When I got married, my husband and I had to figure out the brand thing- which was really the best brand of peanut butter (Jif), Mayo (we have Hellman’s and Miracle Whip in the house), toothpaste, etc.? Much of the decisions were based on what we grew up with, and whether or not we thought the other’s choice and experience was better, in order to avoid having duplicates of everything in the house.  We will try new things, but once a decision is made on a favorite, it makes the list and the other choices are largely ignored.

These decisions we all make are largely of convenience.  After all, who wants to spend hours in the grocery store, weighing the relative merits of jars of sauce or cans of beans when it’s a 2 second choice if you know what you want before you get to the shelf?  I can be swayed by sales and price from time to time, but largely, I get the same things, the staples, all the time.

Taking this over to politics, how many of us have made default choices for ourselves based on our beliefs or those of people close to us?  NPR has had several pieces questioning how Independent folks really are, and if people identifying themselves as independents are really partisans in disguise.  Brain scans and some psychology tests can show that people who report themselves as independent really do have a party preference, but don’t want to lock themselves into the perceived box of D or R, because they don’t agree with everything the party stands for.  I feel this way myself.  I feel I am a centrist in 99% of things, and want people to make responsible decisions, with an eye towards the future as well as the present.  I want to feel that regardless of who is elected to office (at any level) that the person will have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of all the constituents, not just those in his or her party.  Unfortunately, politics seems to be filled with people who are more partisan and self serving than ever.  Why is this the case?

I think it comes back to branding.  In fact, most choices seem to come down to labeling issues, as Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book, Blink.  In order to make something other than a snap decision, it takes time, reasoning and an emotional gut check.  When two things are very close, weighing the differences is a lot harder than when the choice seems more black and white.  But let’s face it- most of the choices we make in life are not binary- there are many different ways to make a choice, to weigh options, and sometimes even decide that not deciding is preferential to making a mistake- causing the paradox of choice, where too many choices shuts people down all together.

At the end of all of this, it means that there are very few people actually sitting on the fence in the political race, and probably in reference to your business or brand as well.  Most of the folks probably do care, but your actions and reputation help sway their emotions to or from your brand, as it reflects their own beliefs.  The polarization of views may do more to turn off people than it does to galvanize them to your side.

However, then we have someone like Mitt Romney, who seems willing to be flexible with his opinions.  I’m really not sure who he is.  There’s not a clear brand to vote for, which probably causes more concern that having a defined set of beliefs people can identify with, or not.  I’d like to feel like the Country would be in good hands if he does win, but right now, despite his constant running for office, I still don’t feel like I have a good sense of his brand or true beliefs.  And this inconsistency of message and uncertainty of brand may drive people to leave him on the shelf.  There certainly were other republican candidates like Rick Santorum, who at least I felt like we knew who he was and what we would get if he were elected, even if I found many of his ideas polar opposite of my own- at least his “brand” was certain and predictable.

In a time where very little seems certain, where things are in flux and riskier than ever before, is it possible for a politician to win who is unable to fully identify and inhabit his brand?  (As another friend said off-handedly, Romney’s logo looks like Aquafresh toothpaste, so maybe his brand is good dental hygiene.)

I think many of us are actually in the center.  I think the polarization of politics is turning more and more people off, as we want solutions, not slogans; actions not just words, and not just rhetoric, from both parties, regardless of who holds what job.  It’s all going to be about the emotional aftertaste we’re left with, and whoever holds the job after the election will have to deal with the polarization and bad aftertaste they have left behind after the campaign.  No one gets a clean slate.  In the end, you need everyone, regardless of brand choice, to work together, and the polarization of choice leads to a more destructive path that will be difficult to walk away from.