Obama, Romney both struggle to project a consistent, credible and personal message.
One of the core promises of a brand is that it will reduce uncertainty for consumers and eliminate some stress in their everyday decision making. When brands are distinctive and different, conventional wisdom holds, it's usually easier to make a choice: Do I shop at Target or Wal-Mart?
With 30 days until the presidential election, it's has become clear that while President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney offer two distinctive "personal brands," neither candidate seems to be delivering on that universal promise of a brand.
Romney is the technocrat "fixer" whose clinical, efficient style detracts from his personal approachability. Voters may believe the Romney brand can solve the problem, but wonder whether the "solution" is designed to benefit a certain select group and leave most others behind.
Obama has high likability, but he is not perceived to have the technocratic skills to solve the most compelling problem facing the country -- the economy. Voters wonder whether his brand's egalitarian focus ultimately will produce a solution that's too little, too late for all.
Two distinctive brands, yes. But for many people there's no clear choice and no less stress. To accomplish that, the candidates must achieve three crucial brand qualities:
Being the brand of choice requires more than being distinctive. Being perceived to be different is not the same as being perceived as one who can make a difference. Making a difference has enduring value; merely being different loses appeal over time and, at some point, becomes annoying.
Becoming a strong, valuable brand requires a person or product to be perceived as distinctive, relevant and consistent.
Being the brand of choice requires making a difference on terms a consumer can relate to while also building the trust that the brand will deliver predictably and consistently.
All three of these brand qualities must work together to earn the admiration and loyalty of consumers.
If a brand is perceived to be distinctive and relevant, but not consistent, the brand is interesting to a consumer, but lacks the necessary trust to be a valued brand. There is little doubt in most Americans' minds that Obama is different, for better or worse. The president's penchant for wanting to say different things to different groups helps make him relevant to them, but raises questions about his consistency, weakening his brand in some people's minds.
A brand that is perceived to be distinctive and consistent but not relevant leaves consumers cold and unable to make an emotional connection that reinforces their belief and trust in the brand. Romney is distinctive and his down-to-business, corporate approach leaves little doubt about his discipline and ability to produce consistent results. But many people are having a hard time relating to him, leaving them to wonder: Will his solutions include them?
So how are the candidates doing in filling-in the perceived gaps? Obama used the podium at the Democratic convention to say we are all in this together and together we will rally to grow out of this slow economy. This message resonated with some of his base, but not all.
At the Republican convention, Romney asked his surrogates, notably his wife, to personify the technocrat so voters can relate more on a personal level. Her speech, punctuated by her notable punch line "You can trust Mitt," was impressive. But relationships are personal, person-to-person, and not completely established by a surrogate, so this strategy may have fallen short.
The first presidential debate, focused on the economy, provided the candidates another chance to fill-in their "brand gaps." By most accounts Romney delivered a strong, energetic performance, leaving many Americans with the impression that he has a well-thought-out plan to get the economy back on track for everyone.
Notably, Romney mentioned that he had little concern for the well-being of the wealthy -- "They will do well no matter who is president."
By contrast Obama appeared to fall short of convincing viewers and pundits that he has a strong plan to help Americans, instead focusing his time on rebutting Romney's plans and, surprisingly, pointing out how similar his ideas are to the challenger.
The president's demeanor created an appearance of being less connected or engaged in solving Americans' economic problems.
So it appears the gaps are changing. Romney appears to be closing his brand gap, and it is not clear if Obama's gap is widening or staying the same. Yet many Americans still have no brand of choice.
Can Romney add a personal touch to his promise of solving Americans' most vexing problem -- the economy? Can Obama convince everyone consistency is a matter of looking at things over a longer timeframe? Or will it boil down simple name-calling from both sides?
Consumers prefer brands that are positive, optimistic and give an emotional boost to their everyday life.
Target's promise ("Expect More, Pay Less") and Wal-Mart's promise ("Save Money. Live Better") demonstrate that no matter who your target consumers are, they are drawn to the positive.
If both candidates succeed in closing their respective brand gaps, Americans will have what they need to choose their brand of choice.