The Democratic Brand Is In Trouble -- And It Doesn't Even Know It Yet

By John TantilloMarketing Expert

Too much pride in oneself or in any accomplishment inevitably leads to a fall and there's an even bigger fall coming if you are proud for all the wrong reasons -- especially when those reasons include mistakenly thinking that someone else's accomplishments are your own.

This is the biggest problem facing the Democratic brand today: taking credit for President Obama's success.

[caption id="attachment_7474" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the home mortgage crisis, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009, at Dobson High School in Mesa, Wednesday, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)"][/caption]

Brand Obama's accomplishments are Brand Obama's. They are notthe Democratic Party's. If anything, for Candidate Obama to become President Obama, the Democratic Party was as much, or more, of a stumbling block than John McCain. The fact is, when Obama was railing again Washington on the campaign trail, the Democrats were in charge on Capitol Hill and part of that railing was directed at them (and the people loved it).

Brand Obama knows the difference between his brand and the Democratic Party. As a consummate brand manager you can bet that he's going to take every opportunity to underscore that difference.

In fact, he did exactly that this week.

When President Obama signed the massive new stimulus package into law this week, he held the signing in Colorado not Washington. Now that's a message that the Democrats had better not ignore --the stage wasn't cluttered with politicians.

Brand Obama is proclaiming (just like Brand Reagan did) that he is not of Washington and that he is taking action with the people and for the people. He's saying "It's not about you politicians in Washington; it's about us folks in the heartland and what we need."

(That said, he's got something else big in his favor. If this stimulus fails, he can throw Congress under the bus by blaming them for originating it ("I had to sign it because we had to do something!"), but if it succeeds, he'll get the credit.)

That street runs only one way. The Democrats are not Teflon, Obama is. Obama is a poli-marketer, nota politician.

I've been talking about poli-marketing for the last few weeks and I want to take a moment to clarify what I mean by this term.

Poli-marketing is not just a slick way of saying politicking; it is a complete departure from politicking.

Old-style politicking just won't work anymore, because people aren't going to put up with it. After decades of marketplace choice and with the rise of an ever increasingly interactive Internet, they want and expect results from their government.

Here's what I mean:

Politicking equals meeting voters' perceptions in order to stay in power. This has nothing to do with satisfying real needs and everything to do with controlling the way things are perceived by the voter.

It is also issue-- and ideology-- based, meaning that the politician says what people think he or she wants to say. This is like putting a product on the market before test marketing it and shaping it to genuine needs --- a bad idea.

But Real Marketing -- which is the foundation for poli-marketing -- equals discovering real needs and then satisfying them. In poli-marketing this translates to a politician identifying the real needs of the voters and then setting about to address them whatever it takes. It's simple --- move from the issues-based politics of the past to needs-oriented politics.

Success in politics is performance-based like never before because President Obama's victory gave the electorate a renewed sense that they had power to change their government. I'm not saying all the old political realities are gone, but the ratio of poli-marketing to politicking has shifted distinctly in the former's favor.

New York's Michael Bloomberg was one of the first poli-marketers. It doesn't matter if he's a Democrat or a Republican, he made it known from the beginning that he was there to serve the real needs of real New Yorkers whatever ideological or issue-related toes he has to step on or borders he needs to cross.

Mayor Bloomberg has the luxury of seeming to stand apart from politics (heck, he can always leave and return to his billion dollar lifestyle) and so does President Obama (whose political career --- mythically or not -- seems to have begun almost reluctantly).

Not so the Democrats -- who are seen as professional politicians who live or die on what comes out of their mouths and what direction the wind is blowing. These old-style politicos are going to get a drubbing in the weeks and months to come.

For example, just look at Illinois Senator Roland Burris raising the specter of corrupt Democratic politics and the whole raft of ethical problems that confronted cabinet selections. Or the entire State of California sinking under debt and an obstinate Democratic political machine.

Now you have the possibility that the Democrats are going to run some kind of "Truth Commission" to scrutinize the Bush years.

Wow. What a terrible idea.

Who exactly is calling for this move? The American people? Hardly. This is old school: when you've got the upper-hand you stick it to the other guy and bet on the voter not caring or noticing. This is not needs-oriented and so the Democrats must drop this because it is a risk a political party cannot afford to take today.

My guess is that President Obama is going to reject this idea outright and decisively. He's got to, because even the most solid brands have limits and an investigation of a prior president by a sitting president could badly wound his brand since it could not help but be seen as a partisan act.

The Democrats would do better with the following basic approach:

1) drop all thoughts of re-visiting the past (accept President Obama's advice and look to the future and solving the problems of the American people)

2) generously give President Obama the victory in the stimulus and get behind him across the board (don't jostle for the spotlight)

3) give him support in his mortgage plan and go a step further by insuring that Republicans can get firmly on board this one

4) hit the road, get out of Washington and show that Brand Obama has opened their eyes to poli-marketing and that their concern is the American people and not inside-the-beltway squabbles.

This will neutralize Brand Republican by taking away Brand Republican's greatest strength: its role as a check on big, left-leaning, one-party government.

The Democrats need to do this now, because the American people are going to choose harshly if the country is mired in partisanship two years from now. We'll see the tables turn faster than anyone can believe right now. Democrats must come to the realization that the American people did not vote for them, but against the Republicans (because the Republicans did politics the old-fashioned way, they ignored real needs).

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is branding editor for Fridge Magazine, the magazine for small business owners and entrepreneurs. He is the author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."