Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

May 6, 2015
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Fact: Psychology Can Beef Up Hillary Clinton’s “Briefing”

Fact: Psychology Can Beef Up Hillary Clinton’s “Briefing”

The 2016 campaign is barely under way, and this week Hillary for America unveiled its branded smear-fighting/fact-checking program, The Briefing:

As the content lead for the 2008 Obama campaign’s Fight the Smears microsite and Obama Action Wire email program, I’ve reviewed similar branded fact-army efforts like Mythopedia and the Factivists before. But I didn’t write the book on debunking — John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky did. Specifically, they wrote the Debunking Handbook, which comes with a really nifty summary of why shoving facts down people’s throats doesn’t work:

A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its (sic) influence is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads…in science communication, it’s known as the “information deficit model.” But that model is wrong: people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.

debunking handbookInstead, people apply all sorts of emotional, social, and ideological filters to the information they encounter. That means many well intentioned fact checking efforts often backfire. The authors of the handbook identify three typical ways that can happen:

  1. The Familiarity Backfire Effect
  2. The Overkill Backfire Effect
  3. The Worldview Backfire Effect

Of those, the Clinton effort should be primarily worried about #1 and #2, since the Briefing seems to focus on communicating with existing supporters; #3 is more about convincing those who are inclined to disbelieve anything you say, a subject I’ve also written about that comes with its own challenges.

The Familiarity Backfire Effect

As they say in the handbook, “[F]amiliarity increases the chances of accepting information as true.” That means the typical information deficit approach of identifying a myth and subsequently providing evidence to refute it is clearly counter productive. You end up increasing people’s familiarity with the myth when you want them to get more familiar with the facts!

pro mythSo how does The Briefing effort do at avoiding this effect? Actually, pretty well.

The video is framed as an effort to get the facts out in the face of lies. That kind of general warning is a key factor the handbook’s authors cite. Brian Fallon, the host of the video, does then introduce the lie, but he quickly refutes it with more than facts.

Another key to replacing the wrong facts with the right ones: he provides substitute narratives to fill in the gaps left by the departure of the old information, such as which cabinet department really approved the mining company sale and which rhetorical devices the attacker is using to mislead. He even helps people wrap up the correction in their minds by closing with specific advice about how the viewer can help (by sharing the video and signing up).

All in all, kudos to the Clinton team here.

The Overkill Backfire Effect

Unfortunately, The Briefing doesn’t do as well avoiding the overkill trap, the simplicity of which belies its importance. The handbook authors stress how important it is to make your debunking content easy to process (my emphasis):

That means easy to read, easy to understand and succinct. Information that is easy to process is more likely to be accepted as true…

The Overkill Backfire Effect occurs because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few. A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.

Putting the information in a video was a great start for the Briefing — visual media can make information much easier to process for some people. But the video almost certainly would have been more effective if it had been shorter.

By the time Fallon gets to the information on Bill Clinton’s speeches, the video starts feeling unfocused and overwhelming. That Bill part isn’t just unnecessary; it will probably keep some people from fully absorbing the necessary parts about Hillary.

The lesson: when it comes to fact checking, less can definitely be more.

The psychology of facts can outweigh the facts themselves

As Fallon says in the video, “Facts matter, and you deserve to know them.” Both of those points are true, but when it comes to fact checking, the fact “branding” can be almost as important as the fact content. The truth, after all, is a powerful and compelling brand.

But ultimately the truth is a functional brand benefit, and functional benefits have limited power.

Forfty percent of people know that the power of truth is what you make of it.

Functional benefits are what a brand’s offering actually does. The horsepower in a certain truck, for example, or the economic policy of a political candidate. They’re what people generally prefer to think of themselves using to make up their minds about what to buy or how to vote.

In our truck example, a typical buyer would normally rationalize his purchase by telling himself he needs all that horsepower to tow boats and jet skis around. But it’s not really the functional benefit that sells him. Instead, what really sways the decision is the identity benefit of seeing himself as a tough guy, the emotional benefit of feeling powerful, and so forth.

The Briefing’s ability to engage supporters on the deeper identity, emotional, and social levels is likely to do more than the facts themselves to encourage sharing and participation. Will supporters feel empowered? Will sharing the video help them feel like they relate more to Hillary Clinton? Will they self identify as good citizens, committed to the truth?

If the Clinton campaign can combine good answers to those questions with a simplified approach — and build on the good work they’re already doing — the Briefing should be able to do a lot of good for the campaign.

April 20, 2015
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Launches Strong on Inequality

Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Launches Strong on Inequality

There’s been a lot of harping on Hillary Clinton’s logo since she rolled out her presidential campaign last week, but her moves on economic inequality will likely have a bigger impact on her #politicalbrand.

Specifically, Clinton is making it clear early on that an anti-inequality position will represent a key piece of her brand’s vision and promise:

But when it comes to weaving an anti-economic inequality association into Clinton’s brand, her challenge is similar to an established commercial brand trying to break into a new category: “Traditionally, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has emphasized promoting ‘opportunity’ over reducing inequality.” Making that pivot can be a really hard thing to do, as United Airlines found out when it unsuccessfully tried to break into the discount segment with the ill-fated Ted line.

Just ask United Airlines if it's easy for a well established brand to compete in a new segment.

Just ask United Airlines if it’s easy for a well established brand to compete in a new segment.

To parahprase Rand Paul’s joke, when it comes to this issue, the Clinton political brand might be carrying more baggage on than United.

Not only has she traditionally emphasized opportunity when she could be focusing on inequality, but her husband’s treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, did things, like pushing Wall Street deregulation, that were widely credited with actively driving inequality higher. Even now, some members of the Hillary Clinton team evidently cast anti-inequality efforts as the “politics of envy.” In sum:

With Hillary and her staff about to hit up hedge-fund managers, investment bankers, tech moguls, and other rich folks for hefty campaign contributions, the suspicion lingers that, when it comes down to it, her campaign will punt, rather than directly confront, the entrenched problems of income and wealth inequality.

But it appears that, at least for now, ignoring this history and these internal critics is a savvy position:

Americans have a favorable attitude to redistribution, particularly when it is couched in terms of taking from the rich rather than giving to the poor.

So, given the expedience of making the pivot, and given the challenge it represents for a candidate like Clinton, how should she do it? This is where the rubber meets the road in branding. Many people see branding as a superficial exercise, but just as important as positioning a brand is delivering on its promise. That’s what builds brand credibility and makes all those values and emotions a logo conveys matter. A brand like Chevron, for example, charges a premium for what it markets as high-quality gasoline. Citing a branded ingredient (“Chevron with Techron“) functions as a proof point that builds the credibility of the quality claim.

"Psst...it's called a 'proof point.'"

“Psst…it’s called a ‘proof point.'”

Co-opting another brand actually turns out to be a pretty popular way for commercial brands to develop those proof points — like Coke did by purchasing Odwalla rather than developing a whole new entrant into the juice and smoothie category.

And lo and behold, Clinton has taken advantage of this strategy already. She has attached herself to famous inequality fighter Elizabeth Warren (by writing Warren’s Time 100 entry), but she’s going beyond the purely splashy moves. She’s even hired people that may not be as famous but will nonetheless subtly reinforce her credibility:

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton wrote a love letter in Time magazine to Elizabeth Warren. But what she did next is even more important for the faction of the Democratic Party that’s passionate about tightening the screws on Wall Street: she hired Gary Gensler as her campaign’s chief financial officer…

Gensler is a former banker at Goldman Sachs who became an unlikely hero of the financial reform movement during his stint as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission…

[A]s a gesture, the indication that Gensler is in Clinton’s good graces is a very loud and clear dog whistle to financial reformers and to journalists who cover these agencies. It also implies that after leaving the Obama administration with a slew of smoking bridges, Gensler might be in line for a top financial regulation job in a hypothetical Clinton administration.

Count me impressed so far. This is what savvy political brand managers do: identify an opportunity in the political market, develop a brand vision that positions them to capitalize on it, then fortify that position with credible proof points.

Will it work? It certainly runs the risk of coming across as cynical from a candidate who has a bit of a reputation for political opportunism already. If she sticks with it, her campaign’s execution of this launch period shows they clearly have the chops to pull it off — but with internal dissent already manifest, she’ll have to avoid the indecisiveness that plagued her 2008 campaign, and we won’t know for sure whether she’s pulled that feat off until it’s all over.

April 3, 2015
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on The Political Brand Fallout in Indiana

The Political Brand Fallout in Indiana

Indiana’s unfolding drama with legalizing discrimination has spawned a nationwide media storm, boycotts of the state, and one compromise bill that just made everyone unhappy.

This has caused damage to the political brands of the state of Indiana and nationwide Republicans. After decades of building electoral successes on “God, guns, and gays,” Republicans were clearly caught off-guard by how rapidly public opinion on equality is changing:

[T]he state’s Governor and Republican legislators seem to have stumbled onto one of those tipping point moments when the balance of public sentiment and action doesn’t just shift but shifts dramatically, with the initial shift building on itself.

So there is brand damage here, but that term is deeper and more nuanced than most analyses of the “reputations” of those affected or who “won the week” might suggest.

Branding theory helps shed a greater light on how this explosion evolved and its impact on Republicans. Start with David Aaker’s brand benefits rubric, which I discussed in my 2014 election recap. I recommend reading more about this consistently useful rubric, but here’s the simple way to think about the different types of benefits:

Functional Benefits: The most basic brand promise. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I expect something that does ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I expect him or her to do ____.”

Emotional Benefits: The feelings a brand triggers. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I feel ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I feel ____.”

Self-Expression Benefits: How a brand help individuals express their identities. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I am ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I am ____.”

Social Benefits: How a brand affects individuals’ perceptions of where they fit in. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, the type of people I relate to are ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, the type of people I relate to are ____.”

These various benefit types come up frequently in commercial branding, where they help create points of parity (POPs) and points of differentiation (PODs) between any given product and the competition.

For example, everyone knows that Tesla cars’ electric motors are a POD, giving people the benefit of expressing their au courant and socially conscious sides. But just as important to the brand’s success is how the ~$100k price point and rich design function as a POP with other luxury cars, framing Tesla’s place in the market (and giving people the benefit of feeling accomplished and relating to other high-achievers).

Tesla used points of parity like price to show it belonged with luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes, while using its electric motor as a point of differentiation to stand out.

Tesla used points of parity like price and styling to show it belonged with luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes, while using electric motors as a point of differentiation that could help tip a customer’s decision.

So how do these benefits and POPs and PODs apply in Indiana?

Functional Impact

What Indiana has done by passing this law is explicitly violate a core POP among states — namely, the general promise that states do not exist to officially single anyone out for legalized mistreatment. It’s not quite the core functional benefit of the American “state” as a brand, but it’s close.

Maybe a comparable example would be a toothpaste brand that doesn’t quite say it will no longer clean teeth, but does say it will no longer make breath fresh. Would you be OK with that toothpaste?

Nonetheless, the reason this particular law has resonated so strongly is that losing that POP has cascaded through other types of benefits for so many.

Emotional Impact

All of a sudden, a lot of people had a reason to feel anger about Indiana. And not just coastal liberals, but even local newspapers and business leaders. If you count “not feeling incredible anger at our state” as an emotional benefit, this is probably something Indiana would want to be a POP that instead became a POD.

Self-Expressive Impact

Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff is getting a lot of credit for loosing the avalanche of pressure on Indiana with his early ban on employee travel to the state. But that move was about more than economic sanctions. Look at how he phrased it:

That statement very eloquently expresses an objection to discrimination a lot of people can identify with by framing is as an expression of protection and compassion. Sending people to Indiana wouldn’t just be tacitly condoning a questionable law, in other words, but would really be throwing people to the lions of intolerance.

Again, offering this opportunity for people’s self-expression was a negative POD for Indiana. Notably, other states that were considering similar bills, like Arkansas and Georgia, opted to reconsider those bills rather than introduce a POP with Indiana on this dimension.

Social Impact

With an unusually wide variety of individuals and organizations standing up to speak out against the law or its principles, Americans of all stripes could relate to at least someone when they opposed the new law. These public opponents include:

  2. Ron Swanson portrayer Nick Offerman
  3. Wilco
  4. Corporate leaders
  5. The Indianapolis Star
  6. Governors and mayors
  7. The schools playing in the Final Four in Indianapolis
  8. USC’s athletic director
  9. Religious groups
  10. Gaming nerds
  11. David Letterman:

But the social impact cuts both ways, as proponents of the law also got some people to identify with — namely, Republican presidential candidates and potential candidates who either supported the law directly or at least its general principles:

  1. Jeb Bush
  2. Ben Carson
  3. Ted Cruz
  4. Bobby Jindal
  5. Rick Perry
  6. Marco Rubio
  7. Scott Walker

Though several of these contenders left a little wiggle room rather than directly supporting the law, evidently none of them felt they could afford to make opposition to the law a POD between themselves and their competitors in the minds of Republican primary voters.

But just like Indiana Republicans, these national Republicans may have been blindsided by the inflection point that this law has turned out to be for America’s cultural consensus. That brand positioning outcome has effectively locked many of them into negative emotional, self-expressive, and social impacts with a wide swath of voters for the duration of the race.

Now THAT’s how a news event like this damages political brands.

January 20, 2015
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Obama About to Ace the Impossible Choice Between Fairness and Growth

Obama About to Ace the Impossible Choice Between Fairness and Growth

Fair is fair, right? Well, except when it’s unfair.

In fairness to the president, his State of the Union tax proposal is poised to be pretty smart.

In fairness to the president, his State of the Union tax proposal is poised to be pretty smart.

Appealing to people’s sense of fairness can be incredibly powerful in politics, but fairness is also one of the trickiest concepts in political psychology and cognitive linguistics to get right.

Many voters sense that they’re being unfairly left out of the nation’s economic recovery right now, and President Obama is planning some proposals to address that sense head-on in his State of the Union remarks tonight. But is his new tax plan the right approach? What are voters’ real priorities here?

Let’s start with a rather neck-snapping finding that leads the recent Beyond the Beltway poll:

In addition to viewing the economy as the leading issue facing the country, more voters are looking for the next president to improve the economy through economic growth (60%) compared to improving the economy through economic fairness (40%).

Gains from economic growth have lately been increasingly captured by those who already have the most.

Gains from economic growth have lately been increasingly captured by those who already have the most.

Wait, how do people not want more fairness? Isn’t the problem here that even though the economy has broadly recovered, the gains have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy and left everyone else behind? Wouldn’t increasing fairness be a good solution by definition?

The problem is that people know there are different definitions of fairness — specifically, one for the left and one the right, as explained by Moral Foundations Theory (PDF):

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

So by citing “economic fairness,” a number of people are going to assume you’re picking a definition they don’t like. What’s really happening in this poll, then, is people like “growth” because it means they get to avoid picking sides — thus growth sounds more “fair” to them than fairness itself.

Macroeconimically speaking, both sides are actually not that far off. Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster Capital showed last year that wealth equality increases to some extent with the economic growth rate. But Piketty’s equations don’t answer every challenge of distributing a country’s income and wealth, and the fact remains that the U.S. economy has grown tremendously in recent years while everyone but the super rich has basically continued to stagnate.

That’s why Piketty himself concluded that growth wouldn’t be enough, and instead we need a global wealth tax — a blunt instrument of economic fairness. Surely voters who prefer growth to fairness would hate that and prefer something that promotes growth, right?

Well, it turns out the thing they think will produce growth is basically…uh…wealth taxes, actually (emphasis added):

While backing lower taxes, 76% of voters also expressed support for raising taxes on the wealthy, a measure progressives say would make the tax system fairer. This measure was strongly supported by 49% of voters — the same level of strong support enjoyed by a middle class tax cut….One possible reason that voters can support both policies is that both are viewed by a significant number as measures that would be very helpful to the economy.

My understanding is this is not an economically sound growth agenda. Those middle-class tax cuts may increase growth a little, but I’ve seen plenty of credible analysis showing that tax cuts don’t create as much growth as conservatives say they do — or as much as increasing government spending. Although you theoretically need to collect taxes in order to spend, I’ve never seen anything suggesting higher taxes, on the wealthy or otherwise, increase growth by themselves.

What will definitely happen if you increase taxes on the wealthy and decrease them on the middle class, though, is you will distribute growth more equally to the non-wealthy than before — and more in proportion to their contributions to the economy, as data have shown the effective tax rate of the wealthiest just keeps plummeting. In other words, more fairly, by just about anybody’s definition.

Hmm, it’s starting to look like voters are a little turned around on this one. They think growth will get them to better outcomes than fairness, but they think fairness will generate that growth.

“Only which kind of fairness will lead to growth? You selected growth. That is incorrect. The correct answer is fairness!”

The good news is, the culmination of voters’ flawed logic seems to be converging with the conclusions dictated by sounder logic — right about at the point that President Obama’s tax plan will occupy.

So who cares if these tax policies generate growth? Growth is meaningless for anybody whose real income it isn’t touching, and lately that’s been basically everyone in the middle class.

Shifting the tax burden up the economic ladder, as President Obama will propose tonight, should allow our society’s growth to better reward those contributing to it lower down the ladder. And according to the polls, there’s actually a pretty good chance people will love it despite themselves.

January 7, 2015
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Why Democrats Must Stop Campaigning and Start Managing Political Brands

Why Democrats Must Stop Campaigning and Start Managing Political Brands

If the problem for Democrats isn’t the policies, it must be the other stuff — the trust, the emotional connection, the identity. In short, the political brand.

And judging by some of the contradictory results buried in Democrats’ mid-term thumping, it is very much not the policies.

confused Take Arkansas. Even as voters sent Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Pryor packing, they still voted to raise the state’s minimum wage (a traditionally Democratic priority) at the ballot box. Likewise in Colorado, Democratic incumbent Mark Udall championed reproductive freedoms, while the Republican challenger had a long history of opposing them. Again, voters passed a referendum affirming the Democratic position while booting the Democrat himself.

It’s annoying. We’d like to think we and our fellow voters make up our minds based on cold, hard facts. But just as consumers will list the functional benefits of a product while really basing their purchase decision on less rational considerations, so voters have been shown to “invoke their own issue positions to assume candidates they like agree with them.”

Annoying or not, using brand management techniques would empower Democrats to reap the benefits of the good policies they support.

Adopting new brand-based analytical models for campaigns would be a big deal. It would likely mean a wholesale culture change that would have to permeate Democratic operations at every level, from day-to-day campaign tactics to big-picture management strategies for campaigns and officeholders.

But Democrats can’t afford to run another race without more branding savvy.* This election has been projected to cost over $1 billion, and with huge ideological differences between the parties, there’s too much at stake not to get the most out of the exhaustively researched and fully realized set of techniques and frames found in commercial brand management.

Here’s how Democrats can start using these powerful tools in real races.

Day-to-Day Tactics

If you think voters’ decision-making process is obnoxious, you should see some of the worst fundraising emails Democrats sent in the last cycle. Then again, chances are you did — a lot of people even claimed to receive obnoxious Democratic emails from lists they didn’t sign up for.

Many of the most annoying tactics, like bill collector-style “last chance” warnings and august leaders of our great republic “begging” for contributions, became prevalent because they “tested” well. In other words, practitioners would pit one kind of message against another and see which raised more. And that kind of A-B testing worked, to an extent: questionable emails helped raise about a kajillion dollars this cycle.

But that kind of one-time test is by definition short-sighted. If you only test for what works best today, pretty soon tactics become de facto strategy and you lose sight of tomorrow, risking longer-term damage to your reputation with voters — damage like the “epic turnout collapse” that may have just cost Democrats several House seats.

As I like to say, picture the New York Times website testing one of their typically staid headlines against a New York Post-style bawdy sex pun headline. The sex pun would almost certainly get more clicks every time. But then before long, you’re not the Gray Lady anymore. Now you’re just a tabloid.

At my firm, Trilogy Interactive, we wondered if we could improve performance by strengthening political brand associations in the minds of supporters instead of risking negative changes to the meaning of the brand. We worked with Facebook and our client, Michelle Nunn, to run a test showing that simply hitting recipients of fundraising emails with simultaneous fundraising ads on Facebook increased donations — by 60%:

Results: Treatment Lift and ROI

Hitting fundraising email recipients with simultaneous Facebook ads increased revenue by 60%.

And here’s the thing that makes this a truly exciting finding for branding: the increase wasn’t driven primarily by clicks on the ads. It was mostly driven by transactions that came through the email program — and those contributions were made by some of the least engaged viewers of the ads (as measured by clicks):

Results: Lift by Age and Gender

Revenue increases from ads came in through email and came from less-engaged users.

That means what these ads were essentially doing was boosting the candidate’s political brand recognition and mindshare among existing supporters. And ultimately it means that Democrats can improve their campaign performance by strengthening their brands instead of damaging them.

Big Picture Strategy

Henry Ford is sometimes supposed to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While that quote appears to be apocryphal, it is true that in politics, people do often have a hard time making honest self assessments of their priorities, and it’s equally true that politicians have an immense ability to lead the polls rather than following them.

Democratic pollsters, TV consultants, campaign managers, chiefs of staff, candidates, officeholders, and other assorted power brokers need to get comfortable with that. Just because polls tell you the national party is unpopular in your state doesn’t mean ignoring your party will help, as Mark Pryor effectively did in Arkansas. And just because turning out unmarried women will be crucial to your election in Colorado doesn’t mean it was smart of Mark Udall to become such a one-note candidate on reproductive freedom that people started calling him “Mark Uterus.”

But while barking at people to be better leaders is always good clean fun, the tools and methods developed in the branding world offer a more practical way forward. For example, David Aaker’s brand “benefit” types could easily be adapted, helping political campaigners better identify parts of their appeal they may be sacrificing and compensate.

Functional Benefits
The first of Aaker’s benefit types is a brand’s “functional benefits” — what it does. Functional benefits are necessary for a successful brand, but they generally aren’t sufficient.

flyfriendlyskiesWhile any airline gets you from A to B, for example, United Airlines doesn’t just tell customers they fly to Chicago. United invites you to “fly the friendly skies,” which is aspirational and approachable and makes it sound like you belong; the slogan has been successful because it’s a statement about the other, non-“functional” benefits the brand offers.

A lot of Democratic campaigns, especially in red states, chose to focus almost exclusively on the functional benefits of their political brands in 2014, in part by localizing their races — talking about the nuts and bolts issues that affect in-state voters and distancing themselves from the national brand. At one point, a group of Democratic candidates even asked President Obama to delay a big executive action on immigration in order to keep the national brand in the background.

That immigration move may have cost Democrats more than they realized. Let’s look at some of the other categories of brand benefits Aaker has identified.

Emotional Benefits

Sun-MaidLogo_1912Banner_GoldAaker: “Emotional benefits add richness and depth to the brand and the experience of owning and using the brand. Without the memories that Sun-Maid Raisins evoke, the brand would border on commodity status. The familiar red package links many users to happy days of helping Mom in the kitchen (or the idealized childhood for some who wished that they had such experiences).”

Emotional benefits can also be hugely powerful in politics. Channeling anger at opponents drives turnout, anxiety drives people to make more factually based voting decisions, and everyone knows about hope from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — one of the biggest emotional benefits any campaign has ever provided. Not every campaign has to be that historic, but no campaign should rely too heavily on local issues at the cost of providing a valuable emotional connection.

Self-Expression Benefits

OlayLogo-680x537Aaker: “Brands and products, as symbols of a person’s self-concept, can provide a self-expressive benefit by providing a vehicle by which a person can express him- or herself. When a brand provides a self-expressive benefit, the connection between the brand and the customer is likely to be heightened.

“For example, consider the difference between using Olay, which has been shown to heighten one’s self-concept of being gentle, sophisticated, mature, exotic, mysterious and down-to-earth, and Jergens or Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion, neither of which provides a comparable self-expression benefit but similar functional benefits.”

One thing I’ve seen as an experienced digital fundraiser is that grassroots donors are often motivated to give not by the mundane needs of financing a campaign but rather as a simple expression of a certain point of view — specifically a point of view insufficiently represented in mainstream political dialog.

A great example from recent progressive history is the rise of MoveOn.org, which accomplished its most headline-grabbing growth by helping progressives express their opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Speaking as a progressive myself, many of us felt frustrated that our position wasn’t well represented on talk shows and in newspapers and so forth, let alone by elected leaders. Donations were a way to vent that frustration in a way national political actors were recognizing.

If you’re focusing your campaign on how much you get done for your state — to the point that potential donors and voters don’t feel supporting you helps them express anything — then your political brand is failing to deliver a vital benefit that would make you more valuable to your audience.

Social Benefits

DNC-logo-on_white-sq-250Aaker: “A brand can enable a person to be part of a social group and thereby convey social benefits. ‘When I use or buy this brand, the type of people I relate to are _______.’ A social benefit is powerful because it provides a sense of identity and belonging — very basic human drives. Most people need to have a social niche, whether it is a family, a work team, a recreation group, etc. This social point of reference can play a role in defining a person and influencing what brands he or she buys, uses, and values.”

In many ways, political parties are the ne plus ultra of reference points for individual standing in a democratic society. They help forge ties among strangers and give broader social purpose to votes for individual candidates.

It’s one thing to run away from your national party, but you have to replace the esprit de corps that parties offer with other social benefits. “When I vote for candidate X, the type of people I relate to are _______.” Without compensating for this loss of identity and belonging, many red state Democrats’ political brands offered fewer benefits than their opponents’. That made it hard to drive the turnout they needed to win.

What’s Next

Immigration action alone might not have turned around Democrats’ broad and deep losses. But when President Obama went through with his action after the election, it very likely delivered strong emotional benefits of relief and gratitude to many voters in immigrant communities, felt to many others like an expression of compassion, and gave many others a positive social reference point tied to Democrats.

The result: the president’s low approval rating — the same rating that had been largely responsible for these candidates running away from the national party brand in the first place — rebounded. What was a 43-51 deficit in Gallup’s November 4 poll turned into a 48-48 tie by New Years Eve. Granted, that turnaround probably also had a lot to do with improving jobs numbers and the fact that Republicans were no longer airing ads attacking him. But that’s the point — it’s all part of the bigger brand picture.

Adopting best practices from commercial brand strategy won’t be foolproof, but it is a very powerful tool to help campaigners, legislators, and others develop better overall strategies, in the day-to-day as well as the long-term.

From improving email fundraising safely instead of recklessly to better calibrating the benefits campaigns offer voters, Democrats have shown they can’t afford to ignore political brand management any longer.


* Note: This is different than the structural challenges facing the long-term health of the Republican brand, recent victories notwithstanding.

November 17, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Democratic Political Brand Crumbles, But for How Long?

Democratic Political Brand Crumbles, But for How Long?

The 2012 election showed us how badly troubled the Republican political brand is — but this month’s election showed Democrats are in a lot of trouble, too.

From here on, each side has a clear challenge: while the Republican electoral coalition doesn’t have the raw numbers of its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic base is less reliable, only turning out in winning numbers in big presidential election years.

The party that breaks the stalemate will be the first one that figures out how to improve its brand beyond its core. And while Republicans’ new Senate majority is still committed to wasting time, there are two potential bright spots for Democrats coming out of their 2014 shellacking.

Ray of Democratic Hope #1: More Natural Cohesion

Look which Democrats lost this month: candidates from relatively conservative states like Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Some others lost, too, but these ones are particularly significant because, coming from red or red-ish states, this is the type of senator who would triangulate between their party and in-state voters by basically trash-talking party leadership.

Journalists usually use the polite term “creating distance” to describe this attack on a candidate’s own political brand — but that distance is counter-productive in the big picture. Everyone in the president’s party benefits when he’s more popular.

It can take a lot of effort to recover after you distance yourself from people.

As bad as that is, though, it’s only the passive version of this pernicious triangulation. There’s a more active version, too, and plenty of reason to think it might have harmed Democrats in 2014, particularly in states that could have used more Latino turnout.

According to the New York Times, President Obama was set to take action to limit deportations of some immigrant families, which, in addition to being good policy and a compassionate thing to do, would have likely helped motivate many Latino voters to show up — but then he didn’t:

As Election Day drew closer, nervous Democratic senators in a few states told White House officials that Mr. Obama’s actions could cost them victory. Those conversations culminated in the decision to delay immigration action.

Needless to say, just about every one those nervous senators lost anyway. But what can you do about it when individual incentives often align in a way that’s actually harmful to the group? It’s a legitimate challenge of managing a political brand, which often has diverse stakeholders.

And while successful commercial brands almost always have a chain of accountability that ensures a unified approach, it’s difficult to exercise that authority in a voluntary federation like a political party. Sometimes the president can do it, but usually only when he’s got better poll numbers than Barack Obama does.

But even if Democrats can’t solve that structural cohesion problem once and for all, at least having a more naturally cohesive Senate caucus should reduce damaging attacks on leadership from within the ranks and reduce pressure to dilute powerful brand statements.

Ray of Democratic Hope #2: Some People Are Starting to Get the Inspiration Thing

They say “prevent” defense in the NFL, which is supposed to allow yards but prevent scores, really just prevents you from winning. It really just takes away your aggressiveness.

In politics, prevent defense means campaigning to keep people from voting against you. Winning campaigns give people a reason to vote for their candidate, but Democratic pollsters came away from this election concluding that their candidates didn’t do enough to inspire votes:

These pollsters argued that this was above all the result of a failure to connect with these voters’ economic concerns. At the root of these concerns, Mellman says, are stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve wider, more equitable distribution. Democrats campaigned on a range of economic issues — the minimum wage, pay equity, student loan affordability, expanded pre-kindergarten education — but these didn’t cut through people’s economic anxieties, because they didn’t believe government can successfully address them.

Each one of the solutions Mark Mellman talked about in that paragraph would be nice, but each of them is really little more than tinkering around the edges of a bigger problem with stagnating standard of living for most of the country. And, as Mellman says, people don’t think Democrats can pass them anyway. So yah, what is the point of voting for these candidates?

Think the Democrats had a little confusion with their political brand in this election?

Here’s where it gets better.

Outspoken Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is contemplating a serious run for the Democratic nomination for president. If Democrats’ problem is a lack of inspiration undergirding their brand, then a Sanders run could be just the shot in the arm they need:

[O]ne problem Democrats face is that they don’t have a coherent story to tell on the economy that explains what they’ve done right, connects with people’s current displeasure, and shows a way forward. If by focusing on the economy Sanders forces [presumptive frontrunner Hillary] Clinton to articulate that story and support it with a specific agenda that she could implement if she wins, he will have done her a great service.

A strong Sanders candidacy will do something else: make liberal Democrats feel that their opinions and their concerns are getting a fair hearing in the 2016 process. Sanders is an eloquent and unapologetic voice for liberalism. His presence as a real contender on the campaign trail would assure liberals that their party can still be a vehicle for their ideology, even if the candidate who triumphs is the more centrist establishment figure. And that’s something they could use right now.

In the end, as the old saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Democrats just learned that the hard way. But with fewer red-state members working against the party brand, and with a key potential intervention, Democrats could break the logjam and acquire a more lasting dominance over Republicans — even in mid-term elections.

September 30, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on How to Blow a Right-Wing Billionaire’s Money

How to Blow a Right-Wing Billionaire’s Money

Aren’t mighty captains of industry like Charles and David Koch supposed to derive their success in business because they’re so calm and rational and make such good decisions? Isn’t that what’s earned them the money to make us all tremble at their enormous election spending?

Then why are they so bad at it? Because seriously, they stink out loud — and the stink goes deep.

Start in October, 2011. Progressive senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio was ahead in his reelection race — but he was in trouble. The polling average had him at only 44% approval, well below the 50% threshold usually considered safe for incumbents. Right-wing groups funded by the Koch brothers, among others, smelled blood in the water and attacked. All told, these various groups poured in over $31 million on TV and radio to defeat Senator Brown.

The result: on Election Day, Brown won easily, cruising to a 51-45 victory.

That money could have gone into a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) operation designed to increase turnout among anti-Brown voters, or it could have gone into research by policy experts on effective positions for Brown’s opponent to adopt. But it didn’t.

Vice President Biden, are you worried about right-wing groups spending money so effectively they damage your brand?

Vice President Biden, are you worried about right-wing groups spending money so effectively they damage your brand?

Republican voters turn out more reliably than Democratic ones these days, and the GOP is, frankly, in the grip of a sort of post-policy nihilism that makes the brand the point anyway.

That $31 million went into TV and radio ads designed to damage Senator Brown’s political brand, and it didn’t even come close to working. Any ad agency would be ashamed to take a budget that size, in a state like Ohio, for one year, and make so little impact. Negative impact, even.

So, being such shrewd captains of industry, the funders of these right-wing groups must have learned their lesson, right? They must have used their essentially unlimited financial resources to figure out something that at least wouldn’t waste time, right? Well, other than some minor attempts at voter suppression, no, the Koch brothers and others are doing the same thing again, at this very moment, in the 2014 election:

As of July, the Koch brothers had spent $6 million attacking Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters in Michigan. Yet in the Huffington Post polling aggregate, Peters has improved from 39 percent of the vote in January to 47.3 percent today, far outpacing his Republican rival…

In North Carolina, conservative groups spent $17 million in ads attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan through the end of June. Of that, Koch groups accounted for about $9 million. Yet according to polling from the conservative Civitas Institute, Hagan’s favorable/unfavorable ratings climbed from 38/45 in January to 41/39 at the end of July. The best spin for the Kochs is that their flood of negative advertising had zero effect

Now, many factors play into the health of a political brand beyond these ads, including ones outside any single candidate’s control — like the party brand, the state of the economy, the state of operation of healthcare.gov, and more. But there’s no way to look at the Koch brothers’ spending and conclude it’s achieving its funders’ goal of defeating Democrats.

The best thing to come out of Ford’s experiment with the Edsel might have been a Chinese waiter in San Francisco who was famous for being rude.

I mean, this would have to rank up there with the worst brand campaigns of all time, right? Like Edsel or New Coke level, right?

Well, when I say any advertising agency would be ashamed of these results, the catch is that this wasn’t an integrated campaign. This was dozens of groups, none of which was trying to do anything remotely related to establishing its own brand, and each of which was just trying to damage one specific other brand.

There really isn’t much in the commercial world that would be analogous. Imagine dozens of organizations running ads telling you how awful the iPhone is — except they’re not even selling competing phones.

But the end result of all these groups getting in on the action was each group pushing its own agenda, leading to a lack of coordination and a useless cacophony — basically like this description from the 2012 presidential race:

But when critics of political spending cite the massive numbers invested in presidential politics this cycle — $2.5 billion by November — it’s easy to forget that this is some of the least effective spending in the world…

One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages: American Crossroads was attacking Obama over the deficit; Americans for Prosperity was dwelling on a failed solar energy company, Solyndra; and Restore Our Future was talking about jobs.

It goes to show, as I’ve said, strong authority and chains of accountability are key to a strong political branding effort. These “top businessmen” who plunk down the cash should know stuff like that, shouldn’t they? How do they not realize they’re wasting money?

I wish I knew. But oh, and by the way — Charles and David Koch didn’t build their success in business by making shrewd decisions. They inherited it. That kind of head start makes it a lot easier to break every law you can find and spend a bunch of money on elections, which, even if that spending hasn’t defeated every Democrat, has at least turned the Republican party into a Koch protection racket.

September 15, 2014
by Will Bunnett
1 Comment

Decisively Improving Hillary Clinton’s Political Brand

Back in 2007 and 2008, Hillary Clinton, candidate for president, had trouble making up her mind. Just as commercial brands must be decisive, indecision at the top of the Clinton campaign ended up undermining the entire #politicalbrand, contributing to an upset defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

With Clinton looking more and more like someone who’s about to run for president again in 2016, now is a great time to ask: how does decisiveness contribute to successful commercial brand management, where did Clinton miss last time around, and how can she improve?

Decisiveness in Commercial Brand Management

Research in Motion, essentially pioneered the smartphone. But today, now renamed BlackBerry after its most popular product, it’s an almost irrelevant also-ran. That’s because once Apple burst on the scene, RIM reacted slowly, trying to be an enterprise product that would also appeal consumers — like when it eventually introduced a tablet to compete with the iPad. The RIM tablet was supposed to bring the traditional core brand strength of enterprise functionality, but the company named it the “PlayBook.” Wait, doesn’t that sound like something solely consumer-focused?

The Tylenol brand survived its 1983 scare through decisiveness. Plus, have you heard how wild Cats is?

The Tylenol brand survived its 1983 scare through decisiveness. Plus, have you heard how wild Cats is?

Contrast RIM’s experience to that of Tylenol, which is every branding textbook writer’s favorite example of swift decision-making to head off a controversy.

When reports surfaced in the early 80’s of someone tampering with its pain medication, leading to several deaths, Tylenol immediately issued a recall, took a proactive role in collaborating with law enforcement, and helped develop new, industry-leading safety and anti-tampering standards.

Tylenol market share dropped from 35% to 8% almost immediately after the reports surfaced — but within a year, market share had completely rebounded. Credit Tylenol with swiftly recognizing that its problem as a brand was not so much one of tampering as one of confidence. This honest and accurate diagnosis enabled it to respond decisively to the underlying issue, rather than the surface issue — and without honesty and decisiveness, it’s almost impossible to inspire confidence.

How Indecision Damaged Hillary Clinton’s Political Brand in 2008

As Joshua Green summarized in his authoritative analysis how Clinton lost in 2008 (emphasis added):

What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency.

And indeed, the evidence suggests there were a number of spots in the 2008 campaign where a firm choice right up front could have helped, including:

  • whether to run a positive campaign to convince people in places like Iowa to like her or whether to run a negative campaign attacking Obama for being unqualified and inexperienced,
  • whether to run in Iowa at all,
  • whether to run the infamous “3:00 a.m.” attack ad that ended up coming across as over-the-top,
  • whether to give a speech on gender to match Obama’s speech on race, and
  • whether and when to push for Florida’s and Michigan’s primary delegates to be officially counted.

And making matters worse, to compensate for that occasional indecisiveness, Clinton would apparently sometimes release the pent-up frustration it led to by making big decisions rashly. Like the time when she exploded at her staff on a conference call about why they weren’t attacking Obama, which led to one of the more embarrassing decisions on the campaign: citing Obama’s kindergarten “essay” about how he wanted to be president as “evidence” of his ruthless ambition.

2014 Progress Report

Seemingly conscientious of the damage her reputation suffered from her failure to make hard choices in 2008, Clinton released a whole book this year titled Hard Choices. It’s the kind of long book, mixing personal story and policy ideas, that you write if you’re about to run for president.

Yet the substance of the book doesn’t seem to fulfill the promise of the title. Columnist Frank Rich summed it up brutally:

Aside from money, which she does not need, and publicity, which she also does not need, what is the motivation to write and strenuously promote a memoir that obscures more than it tells and that is not so much a personal statement about the hard choices she has faced as a string of uncontroversial position papers salted with upbeat anecdotes?

After the book rollout, Clinton went on to do an interview where, among other things, she criticized the way the Obama administration has handled rising conflicts in Syria and the Middle East . Within days, the Obama camp was firing back, and she rescinded the critique.

This incident is an obvious example of how being more decisive could have benefitted the Clinton political brand — but it also provides an outstanding opportunity to show how that decisiveness could be achieved:

  1. Clearly identify your goals: Do you want to create distance between yourself and the president, who is a member of your party and has the biggest personal political brand of anyone in the country? Differentiation can be crucial for a brand, so maybe you do.
  2. Identify how you’ll reach those goals: Will you differentiate yourself along foreign policy lines, for example? That would certainly seem to be a good choice for someone who’s now trying to build her own brand based on her experience as secretary of state. Now maybe you look for an interview where you can talk about those foreign policy issues.
  3. Don’t get sidetracked: You want your goal, and only your goal, to be what makes headlines. So don’t say anything else controversial. That way it’ll stick out.
  4. Game it out: Once you do say something controversial, what do you think is going to happen? What else might happen? How will you respond to, say, one of the president’s allies getting defensive? You’ll likely take a little hit there, so decide ahead of time whether it’s worth the benefit of the differentiation.
  5. Stick to the plan: Once you’ve set your action in motion, stick to it. Either way you’ll take a hit from the president’s camp, but making the critique and backing off it will mean you don’t get the value it was supposed to bring either.

Without being on the inside, it’s hard to say at what point in this process there was a breakdown in the Clinton camp’s approach (or if her team even agrees with my assessment that they didn’t get much advantage out of this episode). But given the results from the last campaign, and the evidence from the commercial branding world, it’s an approach I would recommend Clinton take a close look at revamping, heading into the 2016 cycle.

August 13, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Republicans Attack Government’s Brand, 2 of 2: Origins and Future of a Branding Problem

Republicans Attack Government’s Brand, 2 of 2: Origins and Future of a Branding Problem

Conservative hero (and top government official of the United States) Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

That quote is perhaps the most iconic example of Republicans’ systematic efforts throughout recent decades to poison the brand of government — an irony or sorts, considering many of the perpetrating Republicans are themselves involved in government, as I explored in Part 1.

For years, it’s been a wildly successful campaign — one of the most successful ever, I’d say. For one thing, consider that the brand of government entered the picture with a huge positive head start from projects like the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, and the space program that created big, visible, and lasting impressions of the power of government to do awe-inspiring and beneficial things. For another, the negative brand image Republicans have created around government itself has been so successful that it’s created a real barrier to accomplishing all sorts of thingss, from responding to financial crashes to building high-speed train networks.

The Panama Canal really was a huge symbol of America’s brand as a nation when it was built, making it a tempting target for puppet terrorists, I guess.

But lately it seems like the brand attack has been foundering, as younger generations reject not just negative branding efforts aimed at specific programs like Obamacare but even the efforts aimed at government sui generis:

Younger generations have begun to embrace government for its own sake.

Younger generations have begun to embrace government for its own sake.

Where did Republicans’ branding campaign come from? And why has it stopped working so well?


Reagan’s crystallizing quote was preceded by several high-profile failures of government, including the Vietnam war and Watergate. Yet why should those examples dominate and drown out the good examples? On the surface, they don’t seem to be enough to create a whole ideology of hatred.

Sure, Vietnam damaged President Johnson’s own political brand to the point that he didn’t even run for reelection 1968. And sure, the man who replaced him, President Nixon, saw his political brand become so tainted by apparent criminality in the Watergate scandal that he resigned from office altogether.

But the industry category of government, so to speak, is still in good shape: government is still necessary for many things to be able to function, including roads, scientific research, consumer protections, education, and more.

Drivers also had trouble imagining themselves incinerating in rear-end collisions until Ralph Nader published his book -- but that episode didn't incite a whole ideology of opposition to cars themselves.

Drivers also had trouble imagining themselves incinerating in rear-end collisions until Ralph Nader published his book — but bad news for one brand didn’t turn into antipathy for the whole industry category.

Moreover, famous episodes of damage to commercial brands may have hurt the companies responsible without destroying their own categories. For example, the Chevy Corvair safety problems that Ralph Nader blew the lid off of in his seminal Unsafe at Any Speed may have hurt the Chevrolet brand, but it’s not like they incited an entire ideology of opposition to the very existence of cars.

Yet there is one factor so strong that it could be enough to create such an ideology around government: race.

Just a few months before his first inaugural address, in which President Reagan spoke those fateful words “government is the problem,” candidate Reagan had given a speech on “states’ rights” vis-a-vis the federal government. His venue was Philadelphia, Mississippi — a small town known mainly for the fact that three civil rights workers were murdered there by the local KKK and others a few years earlier. That speech has been widely interpreted as a ‘dog whistle,’ a coded appeal on racial lines. For Reagan, antipathy to government was clearly linked directly to racial resentments.

Well, not just for Reagan. The election returns attest to the popularity of that idea, but so does a lot of other evidence. In a controversial piece earlier this year (which I have some unrelated disagreements with), Jonathan Chait ended up addressing much the same question about where the ideology of government hatred on the American right wing comes from. After all, other countries have right wings, but no other developed country I’m aware of has a right-wing ideology so totally opposed to the basic functions of government itself.

As Chait writes,

Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

America’s slave-holding history is not only a huge moral blot on our nation’s past. (It’s often called our nation’s original sin.) Since I am someone who believes in the moral importance of government action for things like assisting the poor and guaranteeing health coverage for all, I can say that it appears to be helping cause morally bad outcomes to this very day. Chait again:

A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists — Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen — published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor — for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density — but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North — an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

So, while it may not be accurate to describe any given advocate of smaller government as racist, I find the linkage of right-wing attacks on government’s brand and racial resentments to be inextricable.


Looking to the future, other studies confirm that the government brand is already much stronger among non-whites than it is among whites. As non-whites grow to make up a larger portion of our country, the character of the racial baggage Americans collectively carry will change. Therefore, the brand of government must also change, one way or another.

Either these non-whites will continue voting heavily Democratic, and the Republican Party will fade into irrelevance, or American conservatism will be reborn with less hostility to the very existence of government. No matter which path we take, it seems the heyday of one of American political branding’s most influential chapters is behind us.