George W. Bush, Branding Guru?

George W. Bush, Branding Guru?

Think brand guru, and what names come to mind? Theodore Levitt. David Ogilvy. Phil Kotler. Regis McKenna. But one brand guru is widely unrecognized — George W. Bush.

Bush as brand guru? Bush occupies the White House. His historic role will be long be debated for initiating the war in Iraq, slashing taxes for the rich and changing long-standing US policies for multilateralism, energy independence and the environment. Whether these actions are seen as positive or negative, it is unmistakable that none of these or his other initiatives could have been accomplished without superlative branding skills.

From the beginning, Bush and his advisors understood that he could have never been elected as an ordinary candidate. He had run three businesses into the ground, and was associated with shady stock deals such as Harkin Energy. He slipped into the “champagne unit” of the Texas Air National Guard at a time when his peers were being drafted and dying in Vietnam, then failed to fulfill his sworn six-year commitment. He was governor of a state that was at the bottom of the rankings in education, healthcare and literacy. His verbal mistakes were – and are — legendary.

So Karl Rove, one of the most brilliant political operatives ever, re-packaged Bush as a brand. Instead of a Yale graduate who was scion of a blue-blood Connecticut family, Bush was presented as a straight-shooting Texan. Instead of showing off his 10,000 square-foot house on an estate that is larger than the Kennedy and Kerry compounds combined, Bush told everyone he lived on a ranch. Instead of defending his being the only presidential candidate ever convicted of a felony (drunk driving), Bush shifted the debate to President Clinton’s adultery. While hobnobbing with Enron CEO Ken Lay, indicted Tom DeLay and influence-peddler Jack Abramoff, who has pled guilty to bribery of top government officials, Bush adroitly “positioned” himself as a drugstore, truck-driving man.

What lessons can be drawn from Bush as brand guru?

  • Visuals are more important than text: Bush carefully stage manages his backdrop. If he’s not standing in front of military service members, he is in front of a signage imprinted with positive slogan. For example, more than 33 months after invading Iraq, Bush recently stood before a backdrop at the US Naval Academy with the words “A Plan for Victory” repetitively stamped.
  • PR is the most powerful branding tool: According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), Bush spends more than four times on PR than any of his predecessors. His PR department has twice as many employees as the Clinton administration. Public relations agency Ketchum was paid more than $1 million in taxpayer funds to produce video PR releases designed to look like news reports. The Bush administration used $240,000 of taxpayer money to pay conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote Bush’s education policies. Bush’s exceptional PR skills helped him generate positive stories about his tax, environmental and, most spectacularly, assertions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  • Consistency is key: In the 2000 election, Bush was famous for giving the same speech again and again with the same enthusiasm. Bush, as well as every member of his team, loyally repeat the same message again and again. Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Tax cuts for the rich do not affect the deficit or the US fiscal future. Problems only develop when messages become inconsistent. For example, Bush tells reporters in Panama “we do not torture” while vice president Dick Cheney asks Congress for an exemption to an anti-torture bill under consideration.
  • Naming is important: Corporations spend millions on the “right” name to connote positive imagery and smooth sales effforts. Think “Brawny” for Georgia-Pacific’s line of thick paper towels. A rollback on President Nixon’s Clean Air Act, widely credited with substantially reducing air pollution during the past 30 years, is called the “Healthy Skies Initiative.” The plan to increase commercial logging in US national forests is called the “Healthy Forests Initiative.”
  • Brand to your base: Brands fail when they try to be all things to all people. Recognizing this, Bush has consistently promoted policies that appease his hard-core political contributors. These include energy policies that support drilling in pristine environments instead of conservation, medical programs that forbid the US government from negotiating with drug companies for lower consumer prices and a dramatic pullback in efforts to free citizens from tobacco addiction. As a result, Bush’s approval ratings have remained in the 80-90th percentile among Republicans, but in the low teens for other Americans.
  • Enlist brand allies: One reason Intel is such a powerful brand is that it pays Dell and other partners to promote “Intel Inside.” In much the same way, Bush has a network of partners to promote his brand, including Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Clear Channel Communications, Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and many more. Other organizations echoing the same talking points include Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

A common branding mistake is to see branding as a short-term issue involving communications, image or “position.” But ultimately, the survival of a brand ultimately depends not on what it promises, but on the value it delivers. After looking at the Iraq war, Katrina debacle, the gaps in Medicare drug coverage and the fast-rising flood of fiscal red ink, the performance of the Bush brand is open to debate. After six years, 52% of Americans says Bush’s term has been a failure, 62% are dissatisfied with the direction of American, and 64% believe things have gotten worse in the past five years, according a CNN/USA Today/Gallop poll released January 27. The recent news that Bush has illegally wiretapped Americans will undoubtedly further erode his remaining “brand equity.”

As Bush illustrates so well, branding can craft political as well as economic powerhouses. But sometimes short-term tactical effectiveness comes at the expense of long-term success. Ultimately, the survival of a brand depends on the value it delivers, not on what it promises. Edsel remains a well-remembered brand today, not for its sales longevity but for its inability to deliver what Americans wanted.

– Nick Wreden [FusionBrand]

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