Hell hath no fury like a disappointed customer. That’s the central “rebranding” challenge facing Barack Obama as he goes into the final campaign sprint, beginning with this week’s Democratic National Convention. In politics, the central question you face in devising your campaign strategy is whether you’re running as a challenger (a role Obama played to perfection in 2008, promising “hope” and “change”) or an incumbent, which is a marvelous position if the country is thriving, and a terrible one if it isn’t.
Even though Obama is able to leverage the infrastructure of his successful 2008 campaign, such as an impressive online operation, the message is entirely different this time around. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose” — a painful truth for Obama, who’s now forced to run as an incumbent and defend an economic record that, to be charitable, isn’t what his supporters might have hoped.
As a former presidential campaign spokesperson, what’s my prescription for Obama?
The first step, if your case to voters isn’t airtight, is to put your opponent on the defensive. (And let’s face it: It could have been way worse! isn’t the most compelling rallying cry.) So far, Obama’s team has thrived here, successfully beating the daylights out of Mitt Romney’s record, including his work at Bain Capital and his personal finances.
Playing offense is a good defense because, even though the blogosphere has an unlimited appetite for news, most voters are still barely paying attention. If the day’s headlines are about your opponent’s missteps (self-imposed or otherwise), it’s a victory: they’re not thrashing you.
He’ll also have to give voters a better sense of his overarching agenda and goals for a second term. For all the accolades he’s received as an orator, Obama has been far less successful (as progressive critics like Emory professor and political consultant Drew Westen have pointed out) at articulating a positive, proactive vision for the nation. That’ll surely be the top priority for his Convention address. Doing so will both help him rebrand himself, and allow him to embrace the full power that incumbency affords.
Indeed, incumbency gives Obama a third technique at his disposal: emphasizing the “switching costs” of electing Mitt Romney. The President’s branding predicament echoes that of another fast-moving American icon: Facebook. Both gained attention with a flashy “coming out” in 2004 (Obama with his instantly famous Democratic National Convention address that year, and Facebook with its launch and rapid adoption on college campuses). Both generated enormous excitement and a legion of dedicated fans (in 2008, Obama amassed three million donors, and Facebook catapulted to over 100 million users). And both, in recent times, have disappointed the high expectations of their most loyal supporters (Obama with a stagnant economy and accusations that he didn’t sufficiently fight for progressive values, and Facebook with its lackluster IPO, tanking stock price, and failure to develop a robust mobile strategy).
So how do you remake the president to endear him to his erstwhile fans? If he wins a second term, aggressive policy moves and a perkier economy will work wonders for his reputation. But in the intervening two months — which will determine whether he gets that opportunity — he may want to embrace the Facebook example. Because, when faced with a credible threat from a well-designed rival (Google+), one of their biggest advantages was the specter of switching costs.
After all, if you’ve spent years uploading photos, writing witty posts, building your friend list, and curating your life on Facebook, why would you want to go back to square one with another, unproven social network? Similarly, the advantage of political incumbency is that you’re a known entity. For voters, switching to Mitt Romney (who has branding challenges of his own), may be a risk they don’t want to bear — and that’s the “status update” President Obama will be driving home until Election Day.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on September 4, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.