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Obama’s crisis of scandals won’t devalue the American brand

June 7th, 2013

President Obama’s Need to Include Strategic Brand Managementto Protect and Grow the Value of America

From the moment President Obama began his campaign for the Oval Office, it was clear something new was afoot. America’s image had been struggling for decades, and with Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan he had set out to change our image and our perception of ourselves as a nation, who we are and what we could accomplish. Like a great CEO, Obama was offering a new image for America, not only to its citizens, but also in the global marketplace. He’s the first President in American history to employthe marketing tactics we associate with brand name consumer products.

With allegations flying and scandals erupting on an almost daily basis, the Obama administration appears to be under constant siege. Between the escalatingattentions in the media to IRS improprieties,http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/05/29/what-s-next-for-the-irs.htmltheBenghazi questions and the AP Phone records leaks—the President has no shortage of scandal attached to his name.

It begs the question “Where will it end?”Americans and the world are waiting to see what comes next. What comes next is vitally important not only for the country in general, but for President Obama’s public perception—and that of America.

As a brand expert, I have had the opportunity to work with many companies facing similar situations. The advice I have offered my clients for managing during a crisis and achieving results would apply to the Obama administration as well.

It’s abundantly clear that Obama is a master of marketing. He’s essentially taken what we thought we knew about the political machine and updated it for modern times and a younger generation. He’s the king of executing his objectives through the art of marketing to achieve his goals, which is what any company seeks to do with its products. In Obama’s case, he’s trying to effectively pass Democratic policies by rallying a coalition of change.

He’s achieved this unprecedented effort by carefully controlling all of the elements of his message, from his first clearly articulated slogan, to his use of social media, even to his graphic design; all the while, carefully measuring his doses by regulating his availability to the press. He’s also obviously a brilliant orator with top-notch writers at his disposal. This trend was established at the outset when he announced long ago that, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for another time… We are the hope for the future.”

No one yet knowsif the current Benghazi situation will indeed be considered “Worse than Watergate,” as some are choosing to tweet at #worsethanwatergate, or as Representative Steve King of Iowa (R – IA) states in U.S. News & World Report,”The Obama administration’s cover-up of the September 11, 2012, Benghazi terrorist attack surpasses Watergate.”http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/do-the-obama-scandals-rise-to-the-level-of-watergate/steve-king-obamas-benghazi-cover-up-is-worse-than-watergate.

My advice is thatin addition to addressing this and other emerging crisis issues head-on while conducting the business of his Presidency, the current administration would be well served by also assessing the very foundations of both the Presidential and the American brands individually and in relationship to each other. What does this mean?  To do the hard work required to truly determinelong-term objectives, thenuse thoseto define the core brand of the Office of the President itself—yes, even beyond Obama.  Then work to inform how these brand pillars support Brand America now and in the future.

Why do this? Protecting the long-term successof our country ensures the brand remains bigger than the details, or the current situation—in crisis or not. Done correctly, this is well worth the effort in terms of permanence. The brand, as defined by long-term vision rather than any lesser concerns, will not change. Again, regardless of the current climate or circumstances, whether great or scandalous, the brand—corporate, product or our country’s—stands for itself.

Coca-Cola, at the moment, faces issues on an international scale. New Middle East marketing initiatives have roused tensions in the area.http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/23/new-coca-cola-ad-campaign-mired-in-sensitive-israeli-identity-politics/That said, is the brand hurt to any significant degree? The brand has established itself for consumers as a staple.  It has created the perception through consistent presentation of their products being a catalyst for togetherness and even world peace. The concepts associated with the brand are so visceral that managing through any crisis that arises lies largely in relying on the strength of their brand.

McDonald’s is once-again suffering criticism around the nutritional value of their menu.http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Family/Modern-Parenthood/2013/0530/We-don-t-sell-junk-food-McDonald-s-CEO-s-comment-sparks-backlash-against-9-year-oldThis current crisis involves criticism from a young girl, but the branding of the company as a place for children is so strong that it barely touches the public psyche.  The name‘McDonald’s” conjures pictures of their logo at every Olympic games, cancer charity and Children’s hospital. The associations created out of a long-term vision of the brand have strengthened it immeasurably.

This effort to market a political message is nothing new. In fact, politics has always been focused on marketing, projecting and selling an image in order to influence people to get on board. It’s exactly the same as any other product, in that you want to get people to relate to what you’re selling, to get them to identify with your product so they will buy into it.

In many ways, then, Obama is a perfect case study of how to play the American marketplace. His openness to how consumers communicate with each other today, and his understanding of their desire for an authentic product, is what gives his unique image such power. He has all the qualities you want in a brand; he’s fresh, different and appealing. And he’s embraced the Internet like no other before him, using its inherent transparency to his advantage, to offer the American people an open image unencumbered by the lack of authenticity that’s become famous in politics and politicians. More than just another President, he also represents the very redefinition of the Presidential Brand itself.

Yet lately, that brand is at risk of being eroded by all the current scandals taking place. Fox News accurately assessed the situation recently when it said, “There’s a hellacious amount of fire and it’s spreading. If Obama can’t contain it, the fires will merge into one mighty conflagration—and light up just how awful his administration has been to the press and his opponents.”

And, in fact, Obama has been trying to put out those fires. Regarding the AP phone scandal, NY Times reported a White House official told them that President Obama’s Senate liaison called Sen. Chuck Schumer and asked him to revive a media shield law the New Yorker had first proposed in 2009.

The IRS scandal may be the most damaging of them all, however. And the NY Times reported, “It’s still not clear if anyone in the White House took note of the situation at the IRS in the spring of 2012. Republicans have speculated, so far with no proof, that the tax agency was acting on political orders from higher-ups, presumably in the White House at the President’s campaign.”

Obama recently sought to douse these flames in a speech, saying, “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it.” This is classic Obama messaging, seeking to rally the American people to counter whatever crisis is occurring with the message of communal change by the people at large against government. In doing so, he somehow, brilliantly, separates himself from the very government that is under attack, once again placing himself with the common man.

Another genius method he uses, is to cover up the bad with the apparent good. He tried to do this recently in his attempt to focus on the seemingly positive economic news; even though the favorable report is in many ways based on what some feel is only an artificially inflated bubble. The Washington Post pointed this out: “Obama is trying to scrape together some good economic news to hide behind. But the weight of the scandals and the bubble of the stock market only delay what could be a building calamity for his administration.”

After 25years working as a brand expert, occasionally watching scandal unexpectedly touch my clients’ businesses and lives, I knowlong-term brand management is not as easy as it sounds. The trick, like with most of life, is in the execution. It takes a shift away from the usual focus on short-term objectives to consider brand strategy. Business goals such as creating a sales increase for the upcoming quarter or even political goals to assure a recent law enactment was a win for everybody are short-term. Long-term goals require strong commitments from leadership, planning and significant resources.

The current situation facing President Obama where he is forced to publicly manage through an avalanche of simultaneous crises is no different. Especially when these could become as severe and memorable as Iran-Contra and the Pentagon Papers or on the other hand as benign and forgettable as Billygate. So, while the politicians and pundits offer opinions on the issues—and Obama continues to lose ground in the polls while the nation waits—now is the time for the President and his administration to include a long-term brand management perspective in their arsenal.  In these difficult situations, and in the decisions about how to respond to them,Obama should take the high road—one based on solid brand strategy.

The single most important consideration for any brand is Value, which is beyond messaging and marketing. Whether it is shareholder value for large public companies, or stakeholder value for organizations and private businesses of all sizes, brand management is key. Value is forever being built or destroyed witheither good brand management, or by ignoring it in exchange for a quick fix. Allowing the market, the public, or the latest crisis to dictate direction for the overall brand itself only damages the brand.

This short-term focus presents a danger to the current effectiveness and the potential legacy of the Obama Presidency. This would be a shame and do our country a disservice given the historical significance of this Presidency. With all of the reasons that Americans have to be proud that he was not only elected in the first place, but was sworn in again, the apparentand increasingly obvious potential for mismanagement of the Obama legacy is also a real concern.

We all expect to see politicians defining themselves within the context of elections with slogans and catch phrases. The arc of the Obama platform from 2008 to the present from “Hope” and “Change we can believe in!” to the “Forward” mantra that everyone is familiar with today is interesting. This evolution in rhetoric has crafted a message.

Elections and campaigns, however, are short-term concerns—even Presidential elections. The crafting of a message, even a message that defines a direction for a sitting President, is not the same as maintaining a long-term brand identity. It is not about the individual who is serving as the President, butrather the Office of the President of the United States of America. Our country itselfrequires our President’s leadership and active guidance to be clearly and consistentlybranded—and therefore protected.

America, the Brand? Yes.

Just like Coke and McDonald’s who manage their brands to ensure they remain embedded in our lives, the Obama administration can take an even more substantial step and initiate a serious Brand Management process for America itself.Just as the corporate c-suite is responsible for the direction of a company and the ultimate value of its brand, the President is responsible for directing the future of our country, and therefor of protecting and increasing its value. No administration, however, has yet to employ the proven practice of strategic brand management for the USA. Time for government to catch up to business and Obama is just the President to do so. Here’s why:

Prada, with a brand identified with luxury and quality increased their brand value 63% in the last year according to the Economist. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/05/focus-5What do you think is the value of the American Brand, or alternatively Brand USA?

The fact that the Presidency owns the stewardship of the American Brandgets overlooked in the usual business of politics, elections, sloganeering,and crisis management. This is not limited to President Obama.With each administration, we are asked to focus on the current leadership and the incumbent Party. Just like the executive team who only cares about short-term profits and the next quarter, the accepted norm is for each occupant of the office to direct all of the focus towards themselves. Each newly elected officialre-prioritizes and change the direction of the Presidential brand because this is the way it has always been done.

The best way to insurethe Obama legacy would be for his administration to subjugate it in service to the American Brand itself.  It would benefit him immensely due to the simple fact that his reputation will endure inside the context of a well-defined Presidential Brand that reaches beyond his own reputation.  The practice of actively considering the American Brand a top priority would be progress for the United States as well as for himself and the enabler.

To apply this and define the country’s brand could become Obama’s legacy just as George Washington’s becamehis role as the Father of the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln led during the Civil War, forever ending slavery and Franklin D.Roosevelt led the country through worldwide economic depression and war. Each of these men wasthe leader of not only our country but the primary zeitgeist of their time. Branding is ours, and Obama is our President during this era.

If the administration does pursue serious brand strategy it remains to be seen if President Obama can restore the original Presidential Brand he so wonderfully created, for a new vision of Brand America. And he’ll have to somehow reconcile an underlying paradox that exists between his original transparency and the current scandals in Washington. Perhaps the LA Times put this topic best, stating, “Although there’s still a great deal to be learned about the scandals and controversies swirling around the White House… the nature of President Obama’s bind is becoming clear. The defenses of his administration require undermining the rationale for his presidency.”

The Obama administration has no shortage of advice in times like these. However, a positive step is to consider a departure from damage control toward a real change of perspective during his Presidency. I’m not referring to polling, or the usual gauges of public perception, which changes often, but to the inclusion of the discipline of true strategic branding practices where management leads the way. I believe thatinvesting the resourcesrequired into theproven practice oflong-term strategic brand managementwould change his legacy.

We, along with many future generations, would be able to realize the benefits of his foresight and leadership if he would consider adding branding to his strategic priorities for protecting and growing the value of Brand America as a long-term investment for our future.

Obama could become the first President to actively and deliberately practice branding as core to his office and the country, and in doing so—he has the potential to fully embrace what he has done from day one—to create and own his unique role in our history as Father of the American Brand.

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