Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

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.

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