Rebranding is a lot harder than branding. Once someone (a boss, your spouse, the media) has an entrenched perception of who you are, it can be extremely difficult to reshape that opinion.
That’s certainly the case for Mitt Romney, whose greatest branding liability is his perceived lack of authenticity (which is likely a factor in his low favorability numbers). The charge certainly wasn’t helped by his aide’s ill-considered remark suggesting that Romney’s positions could change for the general election “almost like an Etch a Sketch.” Indeed, from gay rights and abortion to healthcare policy, Romney’s positions have evolved enough to worry social conservatives that he’s not really on their side.
I’ve watched Mitt Romney’s branding (and rebranding) up close for more than a decade, since I was the Press Secretary for one of his rivals, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in the 2002 race for Massachusetts governor. During the race, we — like Romney’s presidential rivals this year — blasted him as an untrustworthy flip-flopper, though the context back then was whether Romney was as liberal as he claimed to be. I strongly doubted it.
So imagine my surprise, shortly after Romney’s victory, when he announced the hiring of Douglas Foy, the state’s pre-eminent environmental advocate, as a cabinet “super secretary” with control over a massive portfolio, including transportation, housing, energy, and the environment. Foy hadn’t supported Romney during the campaign; he was a Democratic-leaning independent. His selection was a breathtakingly innovative move, quickly followed by Romney’s announcement that he was soliciting resumes, through a publicly-advertised website, from people interested in public service — a major departure from the traditional backroom dealing of Massachusetts politics.
I was stunned. I thought: have I completely misjudged Mitt Romney? I had spent nearly a year on the campaign trail, talking about the value of public service. Perhaps, I thought, we should give him a chance. Maybe he really was the moderate voice he claimed to be. So in late 2002, I encouraged my campaign colleagues to send in their resumes; I submitted mine, too, and expressed a particular interest in working with Foy.
I never heard back from the Romney team, but perhaps it was just as well. Foy eventually quit, shortly after Romney rejected a multi-state greenhouse gas reduction agreement he had instructed him to broker. That same day, Romney announced he would not be seeking reelection, paving the way for his national ambitions and rightward shift; these days, Romney expresses skepticism about the causes of climate change. (Years later, I did have the opportunity to partner with Foy on a consulting project.)
So how can Romney work to overcome “the authenticity issue” that many (like me) have witnessed so vividly? For starters, his selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate is, from a branding perspective, a masterstroke. The VP choice is a powerful symbol for any campaign; it can be a “game change” for good or ill (see: Sarah Palin). In this case, Democrats will find plenty to attack in Ryan’s record. But Ryan is a favorite of the conservative party base, with unquestionable right-wing street cred and a voting record that’s equivalent to Tea Party stalwart Rep. Michele Bachmann’s.
Most importantly, Romney’s decision to “double down” on his economic theme by picking the author of the Republican budget plan draws attention to Romney’s North Star: no one has ever, ever doubted his belief in the salutary power of business. While conservative on social issues (he’s anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage), Ryan doesn’t particularly like to talk about them. Like Romney, his passion is the budget and his economic vision for America. And when your brand is in doubt, it pays to play to your strengths.
Over the next few months, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will be fighting to control their brand, and define their opponent’s. In the process, both will have to overcome their own rebranding challenges as they navigate a fundamental political truth: you have to move forward and adapt to changing circumstances, but too many reinventions means people aren’t quite sure who you are.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on August 13, 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). 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.