Competitive Intelligence / Competitive Strategy, by Arik Johnson
by Arik Johnson

Brand Equity versus Brand Differentiation: Recent Competitive Strategy Lessons in American Political Competition

What's the Cause of Recent "Un-Presidented" U.S. Election Results… a Lack of Brand Differentiation? More Directly, it was a Lack of Brand Equity & the Influence of the Media

Replacing "battleground states" and "undecided voters" are words like "dimpled chads" and "butterfly ballots". But, "disappointing" is the only word that comes to the mind of this humble competitive analyst studying one of the most important, and historic, competitions of the year -- and the one destined to go down in history as the closest Presidential race ever.

In what might be the craziest conclusion in American political history, the U.S. remains undecided over who might be the next duly elected Leader of the Free World. Unless you've been under a rock, you're aware of the current crisis facing American politics from this past Election Day returns. While specifically Presidential in nature, the ramifications extend across the landscape of American democracy. And, while we may yet hear the will of the people before Bill Clinton is scheduled to leave office, it'll be a long, rocky road to resolution. With the election pretty much a tie, what's next?

It seems to me that, the problems go all the way back to the Primary Election season. Because of the way the Primaries are structured, most candidates are slashed from the running so early on, that most of country has absolutely no input towards selecting the candidates. Wouldn't it be great to have had Bill Bradley and John McCain to choose from? But, they never stood a chance! The Republican and Democratic parties already knew whom they were going to nominate before the primaries were held. We all knew we'd get to choose between the prerequisite male, almost identical, southern-born, Ivy-League-educated, middle-of-the-road, wishy-washy politicos with few differentiating positions on the issues. In fact, as Mario Cuomo once said, nobody can be elected on the issues - positing that, if Americans really understood a candidates real stand on the top 15 or 20 issues facing America, they wouldn't vote for that candidate. Well, thank God for Ralph Nader! At least he presented a choice - as detailed in past columns on the subject. By the way, anyone who says George W. is dumb should compare Al Gore's grades at university with Dub-uh-ya's! No contest -- Gore didn't even finish law school and got a whole semester of straight F's in divinity school. At least Bush got a Harvard MBA.

Today, we stand deadlocked. A cliffhanger of an election that is looked on by much of the rest of the world with special embarrassment - watching BBC Worldservice in the day or so after the election, Americans and our election were portrayed as little different from those in Serbia or Nicaragua or South Africa. And, while we might not care what Italy or France thinks of our democracy -- both of whom have undergone several constitutions since our own was adopted over two hundred years ago -- no one can deny that uncertainty breeds anxiety, both abroad and at home.

The media itself has a great deal to do with the current crisis that faces us. Had they not been so focused on being first in reporting the winner (...big deal guys, we'll all know in the morning...) the talking heads would've avoided the scrutiny of the nation and the candidates. Bush, for example, was terribly upset that they put Florida in the Gore column so early in the evening -- potentially discouraging some Republicans from going to the polls in West Coast states California, Oregon and Washington. Now we're left with endless recounts - Gore already saying every "vote must be counted"; fact is, experts estimate that between seven and 10 percent of all votes in any given election are "flawed in some way".

Then again, maybe the electors will rebel -- it's happened before -- electors convening and deciding NOT to vote the will of the people. If Gore pursues the legal challenge of the now infamous "butterfly ballots" in Palm Beach county, there will be a new election there. Gore's side contends that the ballots were confusing and caused many Gore supporters to vote for, of all people, Pat Buchanan for President! Personally, I saw the ballot displayed prominently on television and found it eminently user-friendly (and, if you've read last week's column, I'm no friend of Bush -- endorsing Nader in fact); as well as ad-hoc testing by journalists on the street that yielded an error rate of ZERO among New Yorkers when asked where they'd punch their mark in the ballot to select Gore for President.

A few market and competitive analysis types have written some opinions that focus on the candidates lack of brand differentiation as the source of our problem - with candidates so similar, there was no choice and it ended in a tie. This is a little too obvious for me; I would, rather, focus on the lack of brand equity - a very different dynamic indeed.

Brand equity, is best defined, not by differences between choices, but by the similarities between the choices and the ones making the choice. Brand equity is built when parties/candidates/politicians say and do things that create affinity and identity between themselves (as the choice) and the voting electorate (as the choosers).

Both parties have suffered from this erosion in brand identity and affinity - the only reason we didn't see an all-out revolt from the two major parties was because of the invisibility of the other choices to voters - an environment created the news media who remain the ones chiefly to blame. By focusing their attention squarely on the candidates they'd concluded would be the front-runners as mentioned above, they cut every other party/candidate off at the knees.

Brand equity on the Republican side has suffered a few setbacks resulting from the softening of certain position statements on issues such as abortion and support of the Religious Right - the zealots of the GOP know that the U.S. is more right-wing than most of the rest of the world, but also understand it's moving in the other direction steadily and are realistic about their reasons for this shift in their approach to build bridges to voters. This has served to diminish the identities and loyalties of many traditional Republican voters towards the party (witness Ross Perot's Reform Party challenge in the 90's) - plus, many traditional Republican voters were scared by the "dumb" argument against Bush specifically. I think that, had the GOP run practically anyone other the George W. Bush, they would've won by a landslide.

Likewise, Democrats have alienated many in the party, as typified by the traction Nader got with protest voters. Unfortunately, I think Nader's influence on the outcome (to shift the Dems farther left, as Perot influenced everyone towards a balanced federal budget back in '92) will fall on deaf ears after so many voters were terrified at the thought of Bush in the Whitehouse and held their noses to vote for Gore as the "least worst". If not for leftist Democrat fears, Nader would've gotten his five percent of the electorate and the Greens would've strategically corrected political alignments by co-opting the Left Wing of the Democratic Party.

So, why do voters identify with one candidate or the other… or with one party or the other? Is it brand differentiation or brand equity? Consider the argument by George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at Berkeley and author of "Moral Politics", in describing political brand identity in terms of two opposing "Family Models" - the Strict Father and the Nurturing Mother.

The Strict Father model, identified with the Republican Party, promotes personal responsibility for one's actions and an understanding of the consequences of life in the "real world". The strict father says to his children, "don't come crying home to me if you screw up your life - what you need is discipline!" Thinking abstractly, that is a rough but pretty fair description of the Republican plank: that the poor are poor because they screwed up their lives and need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; that the pregnant young woman seeking an abortion should be made to bear the consequences of their behavior; that if you kill someone you should suffer the same fate yourself at the hands of the state; that handguns are as American as apple-pie and you can have it when you pry it from my cold dead fingers; that nobody ever gave me anything I didn't have to fight for and anyone who wants to make something of themselves in the world needs to do it themselves. Government should be small and focused only on those too old or sick to help themselves - extending no services whatsoever to those who "can but don't"; and taxpayers shouldn't have their tax dollars paying for someone who can't straighten their life out enough to be just as resourceful as any other responsible American.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Nurturing Mother model, obviously more closely identified by Democrats. The typical principles which apply here include: people in difficult circumstances are not always to blame for those circumstances and deserve our earnest help; guns kill people, people don't; I'll worship my own God my own way and you do the same; and, government is the safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves regardless of the reasons. You get the idea.

It's important to understand that these two extremes are never mutually exclusive - qualities of both models exist in every candidate and must be balanced just right in order to get people to vote your way. That's what running for President is all about - convincing Strict Voter and Nurturing Voter alike that you're just what they've always dreamed of - the perfect leader for our country because you agree with their position perfectly and reject the other's view. It's political sleight of hand more than anything else.

Of course, this is an illusion. Both Bush (with his cries for "Compassionate Conservatism") and Gore (who embraced the economic values of modern, materialist American business interests and their continued prosperity while giving lip-service to personal liberties) tried to become the picture of both models. Consider that, the President that wins by a landslide, is the one who masters both models. In my opinion, Bush had this down-pat - if he hadn't been portrayed to so many people as an idiot that can't remember the names of international leaders or even speak English correctly, he would've won decisively.

Have we ever had someone who was so perfectly and masterfully deliberate in his embrace of both models? Why, of course - Bill Clinton himself walked the razor's edge of this very specialized kind of brand equity - saying from opposite sides of his mouth: "I feel your pain" while promising to "end Welfare as we know it". He not only successfully triangulated and co-opted the priorities of his chief competitors - balanced budget, et al - but he captured the essence of a diverse national culture by being at once the Strict Father and simultaneously the Nurturing Mother. Ask a hundred citizens if they could have Bill Clinton as President for another four years and undeniably, 65 percent of the time that group will answer with a hearty - "for sure!" - despite his questionable libidinous shenanigans in the Oval Office.

Neither is it any coincidence that more men are Republicans and more women are Democrats - it was the glaring gender gap between the two front-runners that resulted in this tie from the neck-and-neck race all year long in the first place. It is the identification with each "brand" of political philosophy - the competition for brand equity - that has been eroded to such a degree that virtually equally matched constituencies are lined up against one another. Which is why, as most Americans would frankly agree, I couldn't care less who is declared the actual winner. I agree with the candidate I endorsed in the week before the election - Ralph Nader: "You might as well flip a coin…" - the selection itself will make very little difference in the long run.

Next column, I swear I'll get back to competition in business as our subject matter -- although I just might mention the name of our new President. That is, if we know by then.

Arik R. Johnson is Managing Director of the Competitive Intelligence (CI) outsourcing & support bureau Aurora WDC. Learn more about Arik at his firm's Web site