BRANDING | Yes We Can: The Remix

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Politics is a funny game.  Not funny ha-ha, funny mmm-hmmmm. After all, the point of a political campaign is to craft messages that allow a candidate to communicate who he or she is – values, vision, and achievements – to their constituents.  The best messages manage to be neither too vague, nor too detailed.  The whole business of this very inexact science is one I find endlessly fascinating to watch.

A clear message worth a thousand words.

As I previously wrote, there are many factors that effect a candidate’s image in the eyes of the voter.  Messaging, though, is of paramount importance.  A catchy tag-line that captures the essence of a campaign in just a few words can serve as a consistent communication thread throughout the campaign cycle Come up with a good slogan and you can help your cause immensely.

Case in point:  the 2008 U.S. presidential election will be remembered for many things, of course, but I think we can all agree that one of the most memorable aspects was the innocuously simple three-word phrase: “Yes We Can” As with the lunar landing, the death of Marilyn Monroe, or the release of the first Tickle Me Elmo, voters for years to come will speak wistfully of the moment when they first heard that brief phrase.  What a welcome respite from political language of the past.  So straightforward it was.  So unpretentious.  So hopeful.  So…original?

The accidental researcher.

A couple of months ago, in my continuing effort to explore the many facets of brand communication, I did a search on Netflix to see if there were any films on the subject that might interest me.  As it happens, one of the first titles to pop up was a film called Our Brand Is Crisis (2005).  

The documentary is an inside chronicle of the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, observing as candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada hires a prominent U.S. political strategist, James Carville, and his firm (Greenberg Carville Shrum) to guide his campaign. Carville has no equal in terms of sheer entertainment value – as political types go – and I was eager to watch.  I wanted to see how, and if, a national campaign in Bolivia might differ from what we witness in the United States.  Turns out, not so much is different after all.  From the start, GCS illustrated their ability to craft the storyline of their candidate’s campaign, as well as those of their opponents.

As summarized by the film’s producers:

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS is an astounding look at one of their [GCS’s] campaigns and its earth-shattering aftermath. With flabbergasting access to think sessions, media training and the making of smear campaigns, we watch how the consultants’ marketing strategies shape the relationship between a leader and his people.

“Shaping” is exactly what GCS accomplished – and with exacting skill.  One of the team’s first achievements was the branding of de Lozada’s campaign with a slogan that communicated his mission, and it was a good one… “Si Se Puede” “Yes it can be done.” Sound familiar?  That’s what I thought too. It seems that now-President Obama’s refreshing and forward-looking campaign mantra was not as clever as many of us had assumed.  After my initial jaw-drop at this realization, I began asking questions like:

  • Why have I never heard this mentioned in the news?!
  • Is this a regular practice within campaigns?!
  • Is there such a thing as political-slogan-plagiarism?!
  • Wait…does this even matter…?

I can’t say that I know the answer to all of these questions.  But on the last item, I would offer that the “recycling” of the slogan does indeed matter.  Not simply because it betrays a lack of creativity or originality, but because it illustrates the larger point that we – as citizens and consumers – are at the mercy of those who develop messaging strategies.  Their goal is to get us to buy what they are selling, be it a person, a product, or even an idea.

Yes, you should.

In politics and in the private sector, we are regularly asked to trust in what we have been told, and in the images that we see.  The “Si Se Puede” revelation further demonstrates the need for each of us to engage in critical thinking in this regard.  The fact is that every individual and institution has their own agenda, however well-intentioned. As a result, it is imperative for each of us to be certain of our own intentions and beliefs, and to know what matters as we elect the next president, or purchase our next iPod.

Alternatively, those of us involved in developing messaging strategies should do so with the resolve to communicate authentically. If we do not, the public will eventually see through it, and the messenger will struggle to defend it.

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