Obama's Grand Plans to Rebrand America

By John TantilloMarketing Expert/Founder and President, Marketing Department of America

A lot has been made of President Obama's handshake with Venezuelan would-be strongman Hugo Chavez -- far too much in fact. My advice: innocent until proven otherwise. In other words, the critics should move on.

American presidents shaking hands, backslapping, looking into the other guy's soul and otherwise palling around with would-be dictators is a historical tradition. It's also a critical part of successful diplomacy and one of the great and real marketing advantages of the presidency.

One president was a particular master at it. The year is 1988 and Ronald Reagan is in Moscow. He has cultivated quite a friendship with Communist leader Gorbachev, leader of the "evil empire." Smiles everyone.

Weakness? Permanent damage to the presidential brand and the United States? Not on your life. Two years later, the Soviet Union was no more.

Fact is, the presidency carries both the carrot and the stick in a single brand. A U.S. president is always projecting our economic and military heft wherever he goes (that's the stick). This means that he is free to be friendly and even relaxed with foreign leaders (the carrot) and sometimes he even may make aspirational statements or admissions (like President Obama did in Europe) without leaving the power of the stick too far behind him.

Folks, let's be honest, when the American president smiles it's like the godfather smiling -- you never know what he's thinking and you can be sure that he's not going to give away the farm just because he happens to be playing nice. I mean no disrespect to the virtues of any American president, but everyone knows that there's great power in the presidency and the leverage to get things done in the real world is always there.

President Obama is in the process of re-branding America to the world, because, fairly or unfairly, the world's perception of America has been negative for quite some time.

From a Brand Obama standpoint -- remember I'm talking about the marketing here, not whether or not I actually agree with the Brand Obama politics or worldview-- a big part of this re-branding means changing the perception that America only acts unilaterally, that it does not listen to its allies or ever engage its enemies.

That's why the president expressed himself the way he did in Europe, then went on to make overtures to Cuba and later openly discussed Latin American perceptions of the United States.

He is signaling the redirection of the American brand and announcing that if the United States has been viewed as a one-way communicator, those days are now over.

This is also, by the way, simply a continuation of the "pull" strategy that he used so successfully during the campaign (more on that hereand here). It is very unlikely that his Target Market would be against his recent behavior on the world stage since it fits with his "change" promise. His defense of the Chavez handshake this week is completely in keeping with his campaign statements -- he's telegraphing to his Target Market that he's the man they elected.

It's also in keeping with his academic brand. Academics will talk with anybody. It's no surprise that it was an academic, Woodrow Wilson, who proposed the League of Nations.

In short, Brand Obama is trying to project a kinder, gentler America, one that is a better neighbor and cannot be perceived as arrogant.

From a real marketing perspective this takes the power away from our critics. It will be a lot more difficult for Chavez to rail against an America that has extended a friendly hand toward him and if he does, it will be a lot more difficult for the world to take him seriously or support him.

Will Brand Obama turn out to be Brand Chamberlain -- the British prime minister who confused appeasement with statesmanship? Who knows -- it is far too early to make that call.

In fact, one of my worries is that it is far too early to pass any lasting judgment on Brand Obama but people are doing it anyway. Like my commentson the tea parties last week, knee-jerk reactions and unfocused strikes could relegate Obama's critics and critics of big government to the sidelines for years.

If critics and their opposition are to have real power in the future, they must be seen as credible champions of an alternative way of doing things. Key word: doing. Criticizing without offering a positive alternative for getting things done simply destroys the brand of the critic and leaves the target unscathed. An opposition like this can languish on the sideline for years (see my FOX Forum piece on the Republican brand here).

My marketing advice for anyone in the opposition right now is to hold its fire and build its case with the same Target Market that Brand Obama has cultivated so successfully over the last 24 months. If shaking hands with Chavez is a bad thing then what's the alternative strategy for bringing Venezuela, one of Latin America's oldest democracies, back into the American fold?

Answer that question and then you can criticize the handshake because you'll have a brand that satisfies the needs of the American people.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics (and almost everything else in life) when you keep marketing and branding in mind.