McCain v. Obama: Whose Brand Stretches Right? (And Get Ready for Inconsistencies from Both Candidates)

McCain's challenge lies in maintaining the politically middle-of-the-road voters, while appealing to social conservatives. Obama's lies in moving to the middle without giving up his liberal base.
07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

People throw around the word "brand" without having a precise understanding of its meaning, and maybe that's because every business book gives you a slightly different definition.

Here's one definition:
A brand is a symbolic embodiment of all the information connected to a company, organization, product or service.

Here's another:
A name, sign or symbol used to identify items or services of the seller(s) and to differentiate them from goods of competitors.

And another:
Simply put, a brand is a promise. By identifying and authenticating a product or service it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality.

Personally, I tend to like this one:
A brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.

With brand comes a slew of brand-related terms:
"brand management" - how a company manages its brand;
"brand equity" -the value of the brand;
"brand promise" - the promise that the brand makes to its customers; and
"brand elasticity" - how the brand stretches.

I think the 2008 presidential race comes down to brand elasticity.

Here are two quick examples of brand elasticity:
If I say Mercedes Benz, the company hopes you think of luxury cars. That's what their brand represents. But when Mercedes came out with the C-class series, they bet the farm that they could sell a Mercedes for under $30K and not lose their $80K customers. Lose your $80K customers and your brand is down the toilet, as those customers go elsewhere. But Mercedes was right because their brand was elastic enough to sell luxury at the $30K price point without cannibalizing their high-end market.

Compare that with Southwest Airlines, a company whose brand stands for "value," a fact they even tout in their advertising (e.g. "no frills"). If Southwest tried to sell you luxury, like offering a first class section or having certain first class flights, they would probably go broke. Their "value" brand wouldn't stretch enough to appeal to customers looking for a luxury experience.

Apply brand elasticity to the presidential race, and the question is... how far will each candidate's brand stretch to the Right without losing his existing voters?

McCain comes from the political middle, and his brand represents a relatively traditional, slightly right of center, conservative position -- strong on defense, fiscal responsibility, while de-emphasizing social issues. (I realize these are broad generalizations and that he may not practice what he preaches, but I still think that's what the McCain brand stands for). His challenge lies in maintaining the voting base of Independents and middle of the road Dems and Republicans, while appealing to social conservatives so he can attract that segment of the Bush vote. His dilemma becomes apparent when, for example, the California Supreme Court allows gay marriages to stand, a decision he can't criticize (for fear of losing the middle) but can't ignore (because he distances himself from the religious right). McCain's $1M question is whether he can stretch his brand enough to the right to embrace the socially conservative wing of his party.

Obama comes from the left, with endorsements from the most liberal elements of the Democratic party -- e.g. Ted Kennedy, -- (again, a generalization, just my perspective on his brand). His challenge lies in moving to the middle without giving up his liberal base, so that he can attract Independents and middle of the roaders from both parties. His dilemma is illustrated with issues like the Telecom immunity vote where he doesn't want to support a deal (because his base thinks he's selling out), but he wants to be seen as sensitive to the needs of business (in order to broaden his appeal). Obama's $1M question is whether his brand can stretch right enough to embrace moderate liberals, traditional (fiscal) conservatives and Independents.

So, whose got the more elastic brand?