Our major presidential candidates agreed with each other on foreign policy at their final debate, yet were locked in a firefight. So what were they fighting about? Let's look at their brands -- how they seek to win advantage with the voting audience, delivering a differentiated experience that will inspire a sale on election day, and loyalty thereafter.
One telling difference across all communication points is the brand relationship with the audience. How does each product define your experience? Obama's key messages -- from his "I can't do it without you" speeches and Michelle's "we've got Barack's back" web ads, to the emails celebrating the achievement of fundraising goals through small donations -- are focused on putting the onus on us, the citizens: to participate, to donate, to make the country work better by working with the campaign. This is typified by the "mybarackobama.com" web handle.
Romney, on the other hand, projects a go-it-alone quality that asks merely for your vote, and your trust. His assurances that he'll do the right thing; his wife's memorable assertion that "this man won't fail"; the lack of details on his tax plan and his generalities on job creation, all speak to a sense that your role in the campaign is limited -- have faith, cast your vote, the rest will follow far from where you have to do anything about it.
The Romney campaign theme "Believe in America" even implies that faith alone will be rewarded, rather than participation. Meanwhile Brand Obama's campaign line is in the command form, exhorting us "Forward!"
As the stalemate over the "You didn't build that" message showed, this difference in meaning-making reveals two fundamentally different worldviews: Romney's is that of the mythic American businessman, a solitary Ayn Randian hero who will make a fortune by the sweat of his brow, his competitive smarts, and by knowing how to take advantage of the hand he's dealt. Obama's worldview, by contrast, is that of the community organizer, a believer in the power of the group to transcend individual accomplishment and one who sees humanity at its finest when compassion and empathy are on display.
This difference can be seen as ironic given that the self-made man is the fatherless Obama, not Romney, who was born on the shoulders of financial and political giants. Each aspires to an ideal he has not really lived, since Obama truly is an extraordinary and solitary man, while Romney has followed, admittedly with some moments of vague distinction along the way, the path his father laid out for him, paid for with the financial and social resources his father bequeathed him.
It's as if each wants to be what he could not -- Romney not a well-bred member of a nurturing elite but an independent, self-made man whose success is a testament to his will; Obama not a unique individual apart from the group but just someone who belongs, who fits in.
Ironies aside, the two stories -- the solitary hero and the beloved community -- are in fact equally American myths, the twin strands of our national DNA. And the deployment of these mythic tales in 2012 has conformed to longstanding American political type, with "empathetic liberals" facing off against "tough conservatives."
Our literature and movies have long projected both visions. Was it the lone lawman who tamed the wild frontier, or was it the wagon trains carrying waves of pioneers, who settled towns -- even befriending, rather than destroying, the natives? Is the rags-to-riches success story of Horatio Alger our archetypal immigrant myth, or is it the way communities of Jews and Italians watched out for one another financially and made tight-knit neighborhoods to support each other's dreams and ease the acculturation process? The answer is: Yes, and yes.
As the parties have grown closer together on the key political questions of the day, narrowing the spectrum of acceptable policy and agreeing on much of consequence (as we saw in the final debate), it is storytelling that has been elevated to the level of competition in the marketplace. The parties have sharpened the blade of storytelling as a tool to sunder them apart -- even a tool of destruction. What does it say about the power of myths to organize society when the two political parties, notwithstanding the closeness of their positions on a host of issues, find themselves locked in a pitched battle over simply this: which story to tell us, the American audience.
Read more about branding and politics here in Interbrand IQ's "Political Branding: Brand America 2012" series.