Politics Is Branding

Post this simple question to your social media profile when you get home tonight: Describe in one word (and one word only) each of these political candidates – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I did this following the Milwaukee debate between Clinton and Sanders. Now admittedly there are many biases in sending out political or any other kind of polls among social media friends or followers. Nevertheless, my totally unscientific method yielded interesting findings about the value of each candidate’s brand.

Political leanings of my respondents aside, the words used to describe Trump (blustery, outspoken, brash), Cruz (religious, God-fearing, conservative), and Sanders (change agent, idealist) were remarkably consistent. But the words used to describe Hillary were all over the map – from “qualified” and “experienced” to “scandals” and “untrustworthy.”

Could this reflect the larger brand problem that others have pointed out in the Clinton campaign? It seems likely. Bernie is relentless in his messaging about inequality.  Trump remains as brash and outlandish as ever. And Cruz’s faith is an integral part of his beliefs. Hillary’s messages run from being “qualified” in all aspects to her years of experience to international diplomacy to a defender of rights. She can be all of these things. Still, people have a hard time describing her.

Consistency is at the heart of any good brand. As is trust. Yet brand perceptions of Hillary indicate that she is not scoring well on either of these dimensions. For one, her messages keep changing. This may be due to the constant reliance on data from polls and focus groups that can shape any political candidate’s campaign. Tailored messaging is important, but in the absence of a clearly understood brand ambition or purpose, it does very little to build a brand. Simply put, knowing where a candidate stands on issues does not take the place of knowing who they are.

While people usually build trust in established brands, lack of clarity of purpose may also be working against Hillary. It’s not that she’s an unknown. She’s been around forever. But the public has watched her struggle through many different kinds of crises – Whitewater, Monica Lewinski, Bengazi – and she has not come out the better for it. Basic crisis management principles reinforce the power of a strong brand as an “inoculation” against bad times or events. But in the absence of understanding Hillary’s sense of purpose, many questions remain – not just about what she knew or how she acted, but who she is.

Is it too late for a total Hillary to become a more focused and purpose-driven brand? Probably not. Defining who she is and what she stands for and projecting consistent core values could be key to winning the nomination. But she’d better move on it.