Long before BTRTN, Steve owned an ad agency, and was frequent witness to how a strong brand and an effective communications program can dramatically enhance an organization’s business performance… and how the failure to communicate effectively can cripple an enterprise. Steve thinks Joe Biden needs someone on his team who is totally focused on the Biden brand.
So the Democrats finally passed the “hard” infrastructure bill after a journey through the extruder that managed to take a titanic legislative achievement and barely leave a ripple in the news cycle. Indeed, juicy stories of residual seething resentment between the party’s wings seemed to be more the news than the bill itself.
Moderate Democrats were fuming that the Progressive wing’s unwillingness to vote on the “hard” bill months ago contributed to a sense of “do-nothing Democrats” which led to the embarrassing performance in key off-year races.
Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia went further, excoriating her own party’s President by saying that “nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Hmmm, Abigail, are you really saying that nobody elected Joe Biden to actually do the thing that he spent a year promising the voters he would do? “Build Back Better” was an essential element to his campaign for the Presidency. Did you think he was just kidding? We usually crush politicians for failing to keep promises. Spanberger is breaking new ground in ruthlessly castigating a politician for actually trying to implement the agenda he ran on.
Not to be out-dumbed, Progressives spanbergered back, blaming the off-year election fiasco on the Mod Squad for the appalling intransigence, self-involvement, and CNN-preening of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who each have to be laughing at how much press coverage they milked for their recalcitrance.
Come now, Progressives and Moderates, stop squabbling – you’re both right! You’re both badly damaging the party’s chances in the midterms, and you are killing Joe Biden’s approval rating. Stop it!
Yes, the Democrats have proven they can accomplish something without the slightest help from the Republicans. Unfortunately, it is gridlock. The Democratic Party squandered much of the year they enjoyed a majority in the House and the Senate, and ruled the West Wing, often coming off as a circular firing squad using weapons provided by the assistant director of “Rust,” each and all oblivious to the fact that they were firing live rounds into each other and Joe Biden.
The Progressives’ strategy of refusing to pass the “hard” infrastructure bill without the “soft” bill denied Biden a clear and easy win, and for months made it appear as if this administration could not accomplish anything except foreign policy gaffes. The strategic decision to stall the passage of the “hard” bill substantially delays getting the money out into the hands of Americans, thereby reducing the impact it could have prior to the midterms. The Progressives added a final puzzling soupçon by changing their minds and proceeding with a vote on the hard bill without the soft bill… immediately after the elections in Virginia and New Jersey. So the primary accomplishment of all that posturing and intransigence was to help defeat Terry McAuliffe and humiliate Phil Murphy… and to surrender their bargaining chip with no guarantee of a “soft” bill after all.
Indeed, if you want to point fingers and find the essential error in this fiasco, it is probably the fact that the Progressives (and Biden!) started their negotiations at six trillion dollars. That’s a number you can toss out if you won the general election with an LBJ-grade electoral mandate, not if you have a paper-thin margin in Congress and know you will desperately need the vote of an ornery fiscal conservative from West Virginia. For heaven’s sake, Manchin’s original number was $1.5 trillion, which is 12 parcecs from $6 trillion even if you are in the Millennium Falcon.
So now if a “soft” bill is ever passed at say, $1.7 trillion, it is going to come off as a denuded, diluted, deluded undertaking that Joe Manchin dictated. Worst of all: if you retreat from $6 trillion to $1.75 trillion, it sure makes it look like you were padding your initial bill with a boatload of unnecessary spending… which is exactly what Manchin and the Republicans have been saying.
The truth is that a $1.7 trillion soft infrastructure bill will do wonderful, wonderful things for many Americans… but the optics of a flawed negotiating strategy that opened at $6 trillion will make this legislative triumph look like cold pizza crusts two days after the party. Way to go, Progressives.
The only thing that Washington Democrats seem to truly have in common is that they are all missing the point.
Americans are sick of their own government’s ineptitude, failures, intransigence, infighting, and bickering. The American people want their leaders to work together to get stuff done to help the American people. That – more than anything – is what Joe Biden campaigned on.
And right now, even after passing the original $1.9 trillion Coronavirus relief bill and now the $1.2 trillion “hard” infrastructure bill, the Democratic brand in the United States still somehow seems to stand for infighting, bickering, intransigence, and the self-involvement of lawmakers.
In corporate America, they’d call it a branding problem.
A branding problem is when there is a disconnect between what your product or service actually delivers and how consumers perceive it.
Branding problems can take many forms.
A branding problem is when your phone is every bit as good as the other one, but the other brand is far more desirable because it is perceived to be “cooler.”
A branding problem is when you have a product that is demonstrably superior to the competitor, but consumers fail to see it, believe it, or act on it.
Note that we are not citing examples of product inferiority. If your product actually is not as good as the competitors (think Johnson & Johnson relative to Moderna), that is not a branding problem, but it can lead to a branding problem (“gee, I used to think that Johnson & Johnson was a great company, and then they came up with that lousy Covid vaccine. It makes me wonder if their other products aren't that good, either”).
Branding problems are real. They can have huge business and economic implications: you can’t charge as much for your product as you should be able to charge, and in dire cases, you can find that you lose distribution of your product. Once you have a bad stain on your brand, it can take years and years – decades -- to fix.
The essence of a branding problem is when widespread perception is not aligned with reality. It is not a problem inherent in the product… it is a problem that is squarely lodged in the mind of the consumer.
Very often, branding problems can be traced to failures to communicate effectively. Companies that either do not spend much time focused on the importance of communicating -- or those who simply do it poorly -- are essentially abdicating their responsibility to not simply make good products, but to ensure that consumers understand and recognize their value.
Which brings us to the Presidency of Joseph Biden and the badly tarnished Democratic brand.
Nobody is saying that Joe Biden has had a flawless first year as President, but the Coronavirus relief bill the “hard” infrastructure bill alone are huge achievements, and the passage of yet a third epic “soft” infrastructure bill would rank the Biden administration as among the most activist Democratic administrations in history. Add in steady progress on the battle against Covid 19 in the face of the Delta variant and anti-vaxxer ignorance, and you have a powerful story to tell.
What is the story we are hearing?
The primary communication from Washington Democrats the last two months has been about “hard” and “soft” infrastructure bills (how’s that for consumer friendly language!), about how much the bills cost, about deadlines for votes and then missing deadlines for votes, about how much the Democrats disagree about the bills, and how much personal animosity now exists between the factions of the party. The only discussion of the substance of the bills has been focused on what can, should, and will be eliminated from the bills in order to get them passed.
Democrats seem to forget that complex legislation takes time… the ACA took over a year. But by repeatedly missing wildly over-aggressive “deadlines,” the Democrats exacerbated the sense that no one agreed on the substance of the legislation, and that the bills themselves were flawed.
With a string of bad headlines from Afghanistan to France to the Port of Los Angeles, Biden desperately needed this win. And yet Biden chose to stay on the sidelines, patiently waiting for the temper tantrums to subside, squandering precious time and allowing his Presidency to lose altitude to the point where you can practically hear the automatic cockpit voice screaming “Stall! Stall! Stall!” in the background.
But we should not be surprised. This communication is being driven by beltway bureaucrats speaking in coded insider-speak. None of these people appears trained in the art of mass communication, which focuses less on the words that are being said and much more on what is actually being heard by the average American.
Don’t get me wrong: plenty of Democratic office holders are giving a great deal of thought to how to actually improve the lives of ordinary Americans. It’s just that no one appears to be giving much thought to making sure those ordinary Americans understand what’s being done.
No one is providing aggressive, coherent, continuous messaging to help shape public opinion. In the absence of a thoughtful, concerted, and consistent communication about the Biden administration brand, the narrative of Joe Biden’s presidency is being shaped by others… pundits, Fox News, and even snarky CNN reporters who make a big show of critiquing Biden in order to prove just how objective they are.
You can hate Donald Trump, but he believed that shaping public opinion was so critical to his Presidency that he refused to outsource the job to anyone else. Trump was often characterized as a “great marketer,” an accolade he does not deserve, because blatant, unceasing, and craven lying does not constitute “marketing.” But for Trump, Job #1 was shaping of public opinion of the Trump brand among his faithful.
Trump, indeed, placed so much emphasis on being the personal voice of his administration that he succeeded in convincing his followers that his lies – no matter how egregious – were the truth. And yes, Donald Trump had the benefit of an advertising budget that was literally unmeasurable: every night, Fox News fell slavishly in line to amplify Dear Leader’s every utterance. CNN is nowhere near as pliant and eager to support Biden as Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN were to serve the Kool-Aid for Trump.
Do you think White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is supposed to be the brand guru? Sure, she is spunky and feisty, but her job is not to manage the Biden brand. Psaki’s job is to ride herd over the Washington Press Corp, and it is refreshing that this job is being done consistently and professionally. But Jen Psaki is obsessing over what Maggie Haberman thinks about Biden… not what voters in Michigan believe.
If there is actually a role in the White House that is to be equated with a “Chief Marketing Officer” or “Brand Strategist,” it should be White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, who is actually Psaki’s boss. But even her title speaks to the point that the White House doesn’t really get “branding,” as it implies that her job is “outbound communications.” A branding expert thinks that the job is first and foremost to understand the mind of the consumer. Ms. Bedingfield has an impressive curriculum vitae as a veteran of political campaigns. Though she had a brief stint at the Motion Picture Association of America, she never spent time managing a major consumer-facing America brand.
And for lack of someone focused on the business of managing the health of the Biden brand, the Biden administration is being rewarded with a crappy job approval rating.
Joe Biden urgently needs to bring in a “Chief Brand Stratetist” to manage public perception of the Democratic Party and the Biden Administration.
He needs somebody who has spent his or her entire career understanding how ordinary consumers think, gather information, process information, and make buying decisions. He needs someone who is not there to determine policy, but who is an expert in how to communicate with, explain to, persuade the people who buy Charmin, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and State Farm Insurance, and who vote for President of the United States. He needs someone there who knows how to do the type of market research that reveals the emotional needs and desires of ordinary Americans.
A Chief Brand Strategist would not wait four years and then try to tell the story of an administration in the two months prior to the election. A Brand strategist would be waging a pro-active communications offensive to sell these bills to the American public, to make sure that ordinary Americans really understand all the fabulous ways that these “infrastructure” programs are going to make life better. Such a program would give the bills popular support, which would in turn pressure Congress to support them.
A Brand Strategist would not have let Joe Biden call his plan to transform America the “Build Back Better” plan, which sounds like a tepid, milquetoast program intended to merely restore America to some vague past status quo with some marginal incremental improvements around the edges. LBJ’s “Great Society” conveyed soaring aspiration, while “Morning in America” and “The New Deal” at least promised something new. Even “Make America Great Again” – which Trump stole from Reagan – is far more rousing than “Build Back Better.”
What would be better would be to find a slogan that conveys kinetic energy, forward motion, and one that that promises that ordinary Americans in every village, town, and city would see improvement in their lives and opportunities. Building a better America for all.
With a powerful “brand promise,” a Brand Strategist would then map out the specific messaging to support that theme, beginning by setting a precise, measurable, and achievable goal: “By election day 2022, the majority of Americans should be able to name the four most important components of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program: (1) support for families by virtue of universal preschool and extended Child Tax credit, (2) the largest investment to combat climate change in the nation’s history, (3) expansion of affordable health care, and (4) strengthening the middle class through affordable housing.”
A Brand Strategist wouldn’t sit around and let Joe Manchin run roughshod over the White House. A shrewd marketer would run millions of dollars of advertising in Wheeling to explain to West Virginians just how much ordinary citizens in the Mountain State would benefit from the infrastructure bills. Then watch what happens when Joe Manchin discovers that a huge percentage of his voters would be pissed off if he continued to oppose the legislation. That is marketing.
And, yes, an ongoing advertising campaign is essential. This does not mean spending Federal budget dollars on tv commercials. Rather, the Democratic Party should take a good close look at how Verizon, Chase, and McDonalds build brand imagery and loyalty through national advertising campaigns that run year round, year in, year out, all to establish a strong, clear, consistent understanding of their brands.
The Democratic Party should be running commercials talking about all the features of the “Build Back Better” legislation, and – now that at least part of it is passed – focus advertising on case histories about how it is improving lives, providing jobs, and raising the standard of living all across America.
Key to a successful ad campaign? Don’t bother running
commercials on CNN and MSNBC. You’d be preaching to the choir. Run ads on the
NFL, popular daytime talk shows, and programming that speaks to personal
interests (cooking, home improvement) to reach those who get their news from Fox, and those who do not regularly watch news programming.
A smart communications program won’t solve everything, but it could have helped Biden even in the darkest moments of his year. Yes, Afghanistan.
Branding is all about pro-active communicating: getting out in front of the media with your message that is clear, persuasive, and pervasive. Somebody should have been out in front of the Afghan withdrawal with messaging, communicating that Americans should not be fighting a civil war for the Afghanis, and that if the Afghani people, government, and army did not choose to defend themselves from the Taliban, then the young men and women of our armed services should not be doing it for them. Biden should have made sure that the American people heard the message… as well as the Afghanis themselves.
Biden’s best communication effort? By and large, Biden has done a good job of aggressively advocating for vaccination against the Coronavirus, elevating the intensity of the national debate by allowing his emotions to show and by publicly spanking Southern governors for their politically motivated opposition to mandates. Still, we look at the diaspora of messaging out of Federal, State, and local governments and remained generally baffled by the absence of coherent, integrated messaging on this most vital of topics.
Communicate!!! Tell people what you are going to do, why you are doing it, and how it will it make their lives better!
The overall grade for this administration’s communication is not good, as measured by the weakness of the brand -- the gap between perception (his approval rating) and the reality (legislative achievements and progress on Covid-19). There may be a simple reason why: there’s nobody in the White House who thinks like a brand strategist, no one whose entire job focus is the health and vitality of the Biden brand.
The Democratic National Committee should find a person who has been leading the messaging for a major corporation in a consumer goods and service category, and ask them to lead a new department of public communications for the Democratic Party.
Joe Biden’s approval rating is frightening evidence of a classic branding problem. He has done a better job as President than he is being given credit for, and he has from now until the midterms to fix the disconnect between perception and reality. He needs an expert who knows how to align public perception with reality.
It is time for Democrats to make that vital task somebody’s full time job. It is time to hire a Chief Brand Strategist.
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