Ad wars: Obama vs. Romney


Imagine this: It’s Wednesday, Nov. 7th 2012 and Mitt Romney just lost the election. Since he ain’t goin’ to Disneyworld, what should he be thinking? What went wrong?


One big word jumps to mind — branding. Brands stand for something and Mr. Romney never gave a clear, consistent brand message. He was, from the outset, defined as being inconsistent.


This week President Obama launched a new 7:17 minute video entitled, “Forward.” It is to be the word now associated with his re-election campaign. It’s very smart for a number of reasons. First, it is a one-word idea, like “Change” was in 2008, which encapsulated the country’s feeling after 8-years of President Bush.


Second, you can do a lot in a 7+ minute video that you can’t do in a traditional thirty-second ad. A thirty-second ad, is like flying a plane from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv – as soon as you take off, it’s time to land. It’s good for one message and that’s it. By putting a lengthier ad on the web, the Obama team has highlighted the one “Forward” message as the headline, under which all of the various supporting ideas can be rattled off. Moreover, without having to air it on television at an enormous cost, it went viral and was picked up on several news site and viewed on Youtube 584,201 times as of this writing. Clips of it will also be lifted and shown on the news, prompting voters to seek it out, without the campaign having to buy airtime.


After a long fought out primary season, Governor Romney never fully won the hearts and minds of the electorate. According to a Real Clear Politics average, in the most recent Favorable/Unfavorable poll, Romney’s Favorable rating is 36.6 vs. 41.4 Unfavorable.


One might surmise and project into November, that the Republicans and Independents who did end up voting for him, did so begrudgingly with the idea, “Anyone but Obama.”


Hmm…now imagine if a brand like Pepsi’s tagline was, “Anything but Coke.” Or BMW claimed, “We’re not Mercedes.” It doesn’t happen for good reason.


Rather, when you first think of BMW you think performance. With Pepsi, you think youth. Clear. Simple.


When you think Romney what first comes to mind? What is the one word?


You see…this is what good branding is all about. Owning a word in the mind.


It should be obvious, therefore, that most political consultants who make most political ads don’t really understand branding. They move and shift daily, depending on the issue of that day that they need to address in order to move poll numbers on that one issue, overlooking what harm it might do to the longer term, overarching strategy. This then results in an inconsistent message – the nail in the coffin for any brand.


Romney’s campaign slogan is “Believe in America.” Well, if you are running for President of the United States, shouldn’t that simply be a point of entry? What makes him different than millions of other Americans?


Leaving his poor choice of motto aside, which is already like using a broken compass on a long voyage, the makers of political ads need to steer away from the cheap, next-day attack ad and that ubiquitous mentality rife among “strategists” and embrace the longer-lasting effects of developing and building up their candidates with a clear, storied message from the outset.


Then, under such a larger, strategic umbrella, they can hang all of the poll-tested, communication points they want. They can even shift, ever so slightly, but remain on course. Consequently, in the end, a tack right, or left will still support the overarching message the candidate stands for. To borrow a Led Zepplin title, “The song remains the same.”


Romney’s course has been all over the map.


Because unfortunately, many political wonks who make ads, claim a politician can’t be branded. I’m told they are not Pepsi or BMW and branding can’t work for a person as it does for some silly consumer product. Bunk.


For clearly everything today is branded. Look at how you dress. You stand for something. Look at the music on your iPod. It says something about you. It brands you. Look at what you drive.


In today’s pop-culture, pols are celebrities and celebrities are brands. From Oprah and Steve Jobs to Obama and Bibi.


Just judging from today, Mr. Romney’s problem was never being properly launched. He was never introduced in a way that voters would say, “Oh yeah, Romney. He’s…”


In fact, his latest campaign video (released and posted alongside Obama’s “Forward” on several sites) was incredibly dark, with storm clouds and a headline, “Broken Promises.”


Now if you are a challenger brand, it’s not a bad strategy to go after the leading brand, (think Pepsi taste tests), but it’s even better to first carve out your own niche and own it. In this short 1-minute video, Romney doesn’t do that. Nor does he provide a solution to Obama. It just ends with the ominous line and website, “Obama isn’t working.”


It actually does more to brand Romney as some dark force, than his intended target since the Romney campaign is the messenger (and you know what happens to the messenger when it’s bad news.)


When former President Bill Clinton took on then President George H.W. Bush, he built his campaign on the future — hope. Again, one word. The music filling the air at his convention was a reunited (symbolic) Fleetwood Mac, singing “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”


He was looking to the future. His story touched on the past, but didn’t wallow there. Mr. Clinton’s campaign actually had a clear direction and consistent message and, so, he won.


Likewise, Ronald Reagan’s famous Tuesday Team in 1984 is another great example of exceptional brand-builders working on an uplifting “Morning In America” campaign.


Politicians need to understand the power of branding or they will lose elections. Until they depart from used-car ads, as opposed to the great, uplifting work branding can consistently do for them, they will be lost in the trees unable to see the forest.


Branding is not a dirty word. It shouldn’t be in elections. It should be the word.


Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at