‘Tis the season when political opponents begin to pullout all the stops to win the election. With the race for president down to just three candidates, negative campaigning is becoming more prominent. For every positive message sent by Senators McCain, Obama, and Clinton, there is a growing number of corresponding negative ones meant to brand the other candidates. Thus we have the message of McCain as too old, or too closely associated with President Bush. Obama is cast as inexperienced and all style, no substance. Clinton is positioned as polarizing and too closely associated with her husband’s style of politics.
There are interesting lessons on branding here. It is rare for a business or organization to succeed by negatively branding the competition. Even naming your competitor in communications has been shown to create positive awareness for them, even when the message is explicitly negative. American consumers often back away from companies that routinely attack their competition. But anti-branding often works in politics.
From now to November is a branding laboratory
Anti-branding works in part because of the extreme brand loyalty that many people feel toward their political party of choice. They seek simple terms in which to understand and process their support of a candidate. For Republicans, then, Senator McCain is seen as experienced (not old), a war hero (not an Iraq hawk) and properly conservative (though not enough for some party members). Senator Clinton is seen by supporters as ready to lead (not polarizing) and experienced in the ways of Washington and foreign affairs (not a First Lady who was along for the ride). Senator Obama is seen as inspirational (not inexperienced) and able to unite the country (not divide it among racial lines).
To watch branding (and anti-branding) at work in the coming months, notice how often the candidates repeat phrases meant to become brand messages. Currently we have Senator Clinton’s “Ready to go on Day 1” and Senator Obama’s “Change”. When the race is reduced to one party from each race the brand process will become even clearer. A famous example of successful anti-branding in consumer products is the classic 7-up “Uncola” campaign, essentially positioning itself by lumping all other sodas in the cola classification. It is rare, however for anti-branding to be available strategy, (outside politics) unless there are very few competitors and/or they can be lumped into one in the customer’s mind. Approach anti-branding with caution. It can bite.