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Presidents, Products and Brands: Three Critical Lessons

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It's always a long road to the White House, with many potholes along the way. 2016 might pit a battle of family dynasties: Jeb v. Hillary. What lessons can we reflect on when pondering the every-four-year spectacle of the wrestling match between the Democratic and Republicans contenders, and what can those teachings tell us about branding in general?

The first lesson: "Go with the Flow"

The easiest way to alienate voters is to take big risks. Media pundits love politicians who swim upstream, but it's the same affection bears hold for migrating salmon. Aspirants to the Oval Office and brands seeking global supremacy must not only seek to dominate a political or product category, but for maximum effectiveness they must fit into the cultural moment.

In an era of narrowcasting and media surfing, no single individual can reshape the national agenda and become president. The Winston Churchills of our young millennium must content themselves with guest appearances on late-night TV and YouTube, while the Forrest Gumps get elected by floating with the breeze.

Presidential candidates cannot change the political climate. The national agenda is increasingly impervious to campaign stratagems or economic, social or moral crusades. Candidates must swim with the tides. The economic and national security context, as well as the over-arching cultural context, rule. That's the model into which the candidate-as-brand must fit.

The second lesson: "Image is (almost) Everything"

Despite endless political punditry and academic speculation, "character" -- the consistency and unity of action over a lifetime -- matters less than it used to. This is true in both public and private lives, and applies to politicians, companies, and brands.

As family and work roles diverge, character and its correlate, integrity, are quaint relics of a distant past (as Bob Dole learned to his chagrin in 1996). The public no longer expects, and the media no longer tolerates, coherence in the behavior and biography of its leaders.

In the age of the Internet, voters choose presidents like Hollywood bestows Oscars -- based on a portfolio of performances, past, present and imagined. "Persona" is the real issue. Candidates do not "run" for president, they audition for the part. They exude confidence in debates, patience with the media, vigor on the stump and empathy with children. Or at least they try. A similar dynamic applies to the public's perception of CEOs, although they are seen less.

In the digital age, where no "off-stage" is possible and viewer access to multiple channels is without boundaries, each voter, more than ever before, brings a subjective montage of images, scenes and stories into the voting booth. When the mental pictures of a candidate's persona aren't complementary, credibility evaporates. To be believable the candidate-as-brand must have a persona distinctive enough to be instantly recognizable, but capacious enough to reflect the diversity and contradictions of the nation. No less true for Oscar Meyer than for Obama.

The third lesson: "Be yourself"

The most important role a presidential candidate must play is himself or herself. The audience holds brand personality and personifications to the same standard. Beneath all the masks, behind all the performances, a harmonizing idea of self must emerge. This "true self" need not be particularly admirable; it may only consist of an insatiable desire to please, but it must be there for all to see.

The true artistry is to play many roles and still play oneself. The guiding principle for candidates, corporate leaders, and products should be "E pluribus unum" -- out of many, one. Authenticity is the base coin of success.