May 12, 2004
BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
To date, John Kerry’s campaign looks like a non-starter, a re-treading of failed Democratic messages, strategies and attitude. The May 3, 2004 Buzzflash Editorial, "Message to John Kerry: In a Television-Dominated World, Form and Image are Content" outlines the issues perfectly. The question is what can he do about it. Clearly, the campaign must change course immediately. Here’s a marketing plan for Senator Kerry that will get him on track and keep him there.
Understand the competition. The Republican Party under Rove will go to extraordinary, amoral and potentially illegal lengths to re-elect G.W. Bush.
To date, no current Democratic campaign or staff with the possible exception of Howard Dean’s has fully grasped the intensity of the amorality of the Republican Party--especially the DNC. This election, more that any other since the Civil War, is a bare-knuckled brawl over the future of the Republic. There is no bottom to the barrel of sleaze that the Republicans will use to win this election. If this cadre of sanctimonious draft-dodgers can without conscience, savage the patriotism of Max Cleland and John McCain, they can easily tar Kerry’s military record and everything else he stands for.
Republicans are using the same tactics on Kerry that have worked against Gore and every other major Democrat. Sen. Kerry has not completely avoided the typical "flypaper" that Republicans use to snare candidates into their terms of their debate. Democrats are easily derailed and blinded by minutiae, by petty character debates and by their seemingly genetic need to be perceived as doing the "right thing," whatever that may be. And they expect to have an honest, open vetting of the issues that never comes. In the meantime, the Republicans frame the issue, run it through the talk radio/Fox echo chamber and win the day. The amazing this is that Democrats always seemed stunned that they are playing defense, despite decades of being thrashed by the same tactics.
Senator Kerry, Mr. Shrum, "Where’s the Beef?"
There is a surplus of profound points of difference between Kerry and Bush. There are reams of documented "oppo" that can be used to bludgeon Bush. None of it needs to be spun or positioned, just powerfully exposed. Bush’s ineptitude and dishonesty is breathtaking in its specificity and ubiquity. The litany is endless--from tangible failures like the utter disaster in Iraq, the deficit, and reversal of virtually every bipartisan international treaty, to his pathological lies and deceptions (WMD, the Medicare Bill, No Child Left Behind) and larger philosophic outrages, not the least of which is that Bush ultimately holds himself accountable only to God, not to the American people.
Virtually every aspect of the Bush record is and should be cannon fodder for the Democratic Party. So what does Kerry talk about? Jobs and healthcare in that dispassionate programmatic Democratic Party tone. Kerry spends two weeks defending his character by explaining the distinction between medals and ribbons—during a time when the President of the United States refuses to appear before a bipartisan investigative committee alone and under oath! No wonder there is gathering concern among many supporters that Kerry is being "Gored" not only by Rove, but by his own myopic and hide-bound strategists. Sadly, the critics are being proven right. Only this time, more than 2000, the consequences of failure are unthinkable.
So how can it be that Kerry can’t find traction with any of these issues? Is there a presidential candidate who had more to work with? To date the Kerry campaign is so flaccid and inept one wonders if it is not in collusion with Karl Rove.
If Kerry is going to win in November, he needs to shift radically the focus of his campaign. Too much is at stake to tolerate tone deaf ideas such as the ‘70s populism that was at the heart of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. Selling shop-worn Democratic wonk-speak concepts like helping fight for the little guy against the big, bad business community won’t fly in 2004. No one cares. No one is listening, not even the base.
Destroying the Bush Brand is Job One
The "genius" of Karl Rove is his merging of classic product branding discipline with an unflappable, unapologetic amorality. Bush and his charges are always on point and on message--events and facts be damned. That’s because Rove has constructed a real brand for Bush. The Bush brand is built around a desired perception of being country-boy humble and steadfast, and it is surrounded and fueled by a set of seemingly bedrock American values; religious reverence, integrity, consistency, candor, and courage, etc. However, like most brands, Bush-the-Brand is only a construct of catch phrases and imagery, and a highly vulnerable one at that. That is because Bush’s actions directly contradict everything Rove has him say.
Kerry cannot win this election without destroying the Bush brand. The campaign is acting as if Kerry is running against a candidate. He’s not. He’s running against a brand, and the difference is critical.
Brands essentially are the expressions of promises made by companies and products (candidates) that drive consumer preference and acceptance. Those promises are made through marketing communications (advertising) and hopefully fulfilled by the consumer’s experience with the product. When a brand fails to fulfill its promises, customers kill the brand through avoidance and negative word of mouth. With all the demonstrable broken promises that the Bush brand has made, one would think that it would be dead. But it’s not.
Where Karl Rove really earns his money is not just in the creation of the brand but its defense. When the Bush brand is threatened by facts or events, Rove has an arsenal of tactics that he brings to bear. In some cases, he kills the messengers, even Republican loyalists (Richard Clark, Bob Woodward, Joe Wilson). He denies legitimate access to people and information (legal challenges, managed press conferences) or changes the subject (mudslinging, rumor creation). There is no concern for the appropriateness, morality or even the legality of such moves. Rove understands that in high stakes competitive categories, it is often better to ask forgiveness than permission. Outing a CIA agent, denying access to public records, stonewalling the press, using character assassination based on fabricated photos, false witnesses and phony documents are all fair tactics in the defense of the Bush brand.
However, Rove fears the one thing all brands fear—negative consumer word-of-mouth. He never allows stories to gain any kind of momentum. He has made brilliant use of the talk radio echo chamber and some of the cable TV channels. He simply out-shouts, side steps or recasts the truth, or slimes the source, whether that source is a former trusted senior advisor or ABC News. And because the Democratic Party still thinks it is dealing with a candidate instead of a brand, it responds to the issues, instead of continually attacking the vulnerable part of the whole Bush machine—the complete failure of the Bush brand to deliver any of its promises.
More than the real disparity in media spending, the lack of understanding of the role of branding is why Kerry does not seem to be on an even footing with Bush. Rove has Kerry chasing his tail because Kerry has not developed the power center that consistent brand messaging, images and tonality would give him. Once Kerry creates a real brand, he will not only have a communication center that will clearly differentiate him and that he can rely on, he’ll have a solid platform upon which to reposition Bush as the out of control radical he is. Until that happens, Bush will always look more steadfast, focused and stronger, no matter what events transpire between now and November.
Dictate the tone. Kerry needs to display the fearlessness he showed as an antiwar activist in the ‘70s and the passionate directness he used win the primaries.
This campaign will be won with passion, language and vision. John Kerry is not Al Gore. Left to his instincts, Kerry is a brawler. The Kerry that took the lead from Howard Dean is sufficient to take the White House in 2004. But he’s nowhere to be found. He needs to come out. Now and forever.
Like Al Gore’s circuitous style, Kerry’s current cautious approach is doomed to fail. The opposition is going to slam everything he says regardless of how he says it. Like a street brawl with the neighborhood bully, appeasement, reason, and avoidance perpetuate the problem. Like dealing with the neighborhood bully, Kerry needs to give the Republicans as they say in Brockton, "a good pop in the chops." Take the risk and swing hard.
As part of that effort, Kerry should consider leveraging the best advertising and creative minds in the country. Turn the Hollywood liberal "problem" into powerful weapon. Have someone like Aaron Sorkin write campaign speeches. Sorkin writes circles around Peggy Noonan. No one pulls the heartstrings with more eloquence, specificity and passion.
If the Republicans try to make someone like Sorkin an issue, so be it. Republicans have always tapped into the advertising and creative community for its words and images--from Nixon’s Bob Haldeman, who was an executive at J. Walter Thompson, to Hal Riney (Reagan’s Morning in America commercials) and Bush’s own Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather. If the campaign is a media brawl of imagery and perception, Kerry needs to hire the best and level the playing field. Kerry needs a real declaration of terms and he needs it immediately.
Aim the campaign at a new target. "Bush hatred" crosses party lines. Kerry is the first Democrat in decades to have the opportunity to put together a potentially powerful and unique new constituency
Millions of traditional Republican voters like veterans, military families, Howard Stern listeners, Dixie Chick fans and true conservatives (who are not zealots) are angry and have nowhere to go. What they have in common is that they have all been victims of Bush’s bait and switch extremism and they are furious. Kerry needs to make himself the preferred candidate to this group. Populism and a vague promise of 10 million jobs just is not going to get it done. These are people who have been deceived and abused. Kerry needs to feel their anger, validate their perceptions, and become one of them. He should fuel their outrage. It’s justified.
The reward just might be the White House. This is a different kind of swing voter, one who is not in the seams of the two parties or traditional demographics. There are probably enough of them to swing this election. They won’t vote for Bush, but Kerry hasn’t given them a reason to vote for him. Reaching them should be a major strategic priority.
Make it personal.
Kerry needs to call Bush on the lifelong cut and run technique he’s used savage anyone who gets in his way. Bush has always relied on adults to fight his battles for him (Poppy, Rove, Hughes, etc.)
Kerry should be more level conscious and never personally address the accusations of minions. When Kerry answers the charges of underlings (even Cheney) he diminishes his stature. Kerry needs to remember that the operating model for the Bush Administration is corporate America. In corporate America, the CEO rarely deals with anyone who’s not a direct report internally, and never deals with anyone who’s not on his level externally. Kerry needs to make this a mano-a-mano battle. He needs to call Bush out personally to defend his record. If Bush wants to engage in character assassination, Kerry must make it clear that he needs to do it himself. Otherwise, Kerry should have his staffers deal with the rest of the Bush sleaze machine.
Personalization should be central to Kerry’s strategy. Bush has a pattern of being AWOL throughout his entire life—in school, the military, in his business dealings, in the Texas government and in the actions of his administration. If Bush doesn’t respond personally, Kerry needs to keep asking the question, Where’s (was) George? (During Vietnam, on terrorism, at the funerals of dead GI’s, on tax breaks for the wealthy, on the transfer of funds from Afghanistan to Iraq, on the phony Medicare budget, on the truth, etc.) It worked against his father. It is more relevant to the son. Make Bush and AWOL synonymous. Go on the attack. Bush’s record and biography provide endless examples. Kerry can make it stick.
Kerry should take a page from Rush Limbaugh and specifically refer to the president by his first name to scrape off the presidential mantle that Bush has assumed and but has not earned. When Republicans did this to Bill Clinton, it diminished him to such an extent that he was small enough to be impeached for a trivial consensual sex act. This is a subtle tactic, but over time, it will diminish Mr. Bush. Look at what the change from "Democratic Party" to "Democrat Party" has done to the tone of the dialog. Republicans, not Democrats, understand that language really counts.
Be aspirational. Contrast Bush’s cynical and patronizing lack of faith in the American people by aligning the campaign with sense of activism that represents America at its best.
Since its founding, America has overcome its problems not through fear, but through action, innovation, guts and engineering. Bush has put America to sleep and treated citizens like they are scared children. Consider its cynical positions on photographing the fallen soldiers from the war on Iraq, and the refusal of Bush to testify under oath and on the record. The Bush Administration keeps the fear and noise levels high because that is really the only power it has.
That said, it isn’t enough for Kerry to be a critic in a society that clearly can’t or won’t absorb the facts. If facts were persuasive, we’d be in the middle of impeachment hearings. Kerry needs to be the better alternative, to have a pure vision, practical or not. He should appeal to America’s "better angels." The last president to articulate a real vision for a progressive, active America was John F. Kennedy. We’re long overdue.
Kerry can become the candidate of the power of American ingenuity and roll-up-your-sleeves citizen involvement—on big initiatives, not just small local stuff. The ideas and tone should inspired and inspirational. Here’s how:
• Position the role of government as an engine for real capitalism, not an entitlement program for the cronies that benefit from every Bush program. Find ways to empower citizens and personalize the big crises. Shift the tone from fear to action. Underscore the fact that even little steps like volunteerism can make a big difference in issues like Homeland Security, energy policy, health care, etc. There is too much of a disconnection between the public and the issues that face them. Most people feel powerless to help either because they believe they will have no impact, or the issue is so big as to be unsolvable.
• The solutions of big initiatives like energy, homeland security, energy and global warming are potentially gigantic wealth generators that will create jobs, new markets, improved competitive position, etc. that all American invest in and profit from—not just corporations and privileged.
Most of all Kerry needs to be bold. Give voters a real choice in plain English. Now.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
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David Ellis is a brand strategist in Los Angeles, California
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