Packaging Politicians: What Kerry, Bush Can Learn From Rock Bands

Posted March 19, 2004 at 1:09pm

“Brands are judged by their authenticity — how real they are in terms of their promises, attributes, and positioning in the eyes of consumer,” write Ohio State University marketing professor Roger Blackwell and consultant Tina Stephan in their 2004 book “Brands that Rock: What Business Leaders Can Learn from the World of Rock and Roll.”

[IMGCAP(1)]While Blackwell and Stephan are writing about rock bands, they could as easily be writing about politicians. Their comments should be of special note to political consultants and strategists working for both Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush.

While both major-party presidential candidates talk often of the economy, jobs, Iraq and homeland security, it is becoming clear that the race for the White House could well turn on questions of character, integrity, clarity, consistency and, yes, authenticity.

“If the positioning and image are too contrived,” write Blackwell and Stephan about rock bands, “the brand often fails to connect with fans, who chalk up a fabricated image as a blatant marketing scheme to sell them something.”

Of course, political consultants are trying to do just that — sell their candidates. But they have to do so in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or fabricated. When Vice President Al Gore had a fashion makeover during the 2000 race, when he appeared to exaggerate his role in the development of the Internet, and when he said the book “Love Story” was based on his relationship with his wife, Tipper, he raised questions about his own credibility.

For Blackwell and Stephan, Gore’s authenticity was cast in doubt, and that probably cost him some potential supporters and even the White House.

Whatever Americans thought of Bush’s intellect or positions on issues, many of them thought he was a down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy who wasn’t so driven to occupy the White House that he’d make things up.

Now, Republicans have begun a major effort to discredit Kerry as a flip-flopping phony who is trying to hide his liberalism. Democrats have tried to sully Bush’s reputation as a straight-shooter by raising questions about his military record and about the steps he took prior to the war with Iraq.

Why the focus on personal qualities and consistency? Strategists for each party know that if they can undercut their opponent’s character and authenticity, they are more than half way to winning the White House.

As long as the national economy doesn’t generate large numbers of new jobs, the situation in Iraq remains chaotic and the war against terrorism continues to spread, Bush’s re-election will remain in doubt. Moreover, the president won’t be able to focus merely on his accomplishments to earn a second term.

Instead, his campaign will need to raise doubts about Kerry — about the Senator’s voting record, his position on issues ranging from taxes to gay marriage to Iraq, and his trustworthiness.

The GOP strategy certainly appears to be to paint Kerry as they did Gore, as someone who exaggerates his own accomplishments and who allows political judgments to override principle — in other words, as a politician. And we all know you can’t really trust politicians, right?

Republicans have been arguing that Kerry is on both sides of the gay rights issue, the war, education/No Child Left Behind and now even trade. And it’s not as if that argument is absurd on its face. Remember, this is the Senator who voted for the Iraq war but, when sentiment turned sharply against the war within the Democratic Party, insisted that he voted merely to give the president the authority to go to war.

Last week, the Bush campaign slammed Kerry for saying that he voted for $87 billion in spending for Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against the supplemental. The Republican National Committee also slammed the Senator for his claim that foreign leaders would like Bush to lose in November.

“Kerry still won’t reveal which foreign leaders he ‘met’ or ‘heard from,’” crowed a Republican National Committee e-mail that sought to paint the Democrat as a phony who can’t be trusted.

But, increasingly, Bush has a similar problem.

Critics are raising questions about whether the administration withheld information about the cost of the president’s prescription drug benefit, conservatives are complaining about the deficit and new government entitlements, and social liberals are attacking the compassionate conservative president for being divisive.

It is far harder for Bush to cast himself as a uniter after four tendentious years in the Oval Office that have culminated in the nation seeming more divided than ever.

The challenge for Bush and Kerry is to sell themselves in the most favorable ways to their loyal followers, as well as to consumers who don’t feel all that passionately about them. Issues, of course, matter. But qualities like leadership, trust and authenticity probably matter more.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).