How 'Story Logic' Influenced Obama, Romney Campaigns
This guest article was written by Jim Signorelli, CEO of ESW Partners, a marketing communications agency based in Chicago specializing in branding.
From the early beginnings of the race for the White House, the news media seemed deeply concerned about who would have the biggest war chest. Certainly, dollars have historically contributed a great deal to winning Presidential campaigns. But given that Obama scored a 62% Electoral College advantage with only 4% more spending than Romney, the power of money has been seriously called into question.
Money buys audience reach, message frequency and media placement. Money also pays for the creation and production of messages as well as the necessary wherewithal to administer those messages. We cannot discount the importance of these financial realities.
But there is one variable that has recently gained enormous power. Unlike the other variables, it doesn't depend on spending. It costs nothing more than respect for its existence and adherence to its demands. In part, it is driven by the new order of social media and its ability to make brands more transparent. It's called story logic.
Story logic runs deep in every brand, including those of Presidential candidates. As consumers, we don't see it, but we do sense how strong story logic is or isn't. Toapply story logic to any brand, one must first see the brand as lead character in the story that it sets out to tell its audience. Specifically, a brand is very much like a story's protagonist confronting certain obstacles to achieve certain goals.
Both story protagonists and brands are multilayered. Their surface, or outer layers, contains visible behaviors. In the example of brand Romney vs. brand Obama, each candidate's outer layer consisted of things said, done, and promised prior to and during their campaigns.
Going deeper, the brand's inner layer is like the engine under its hood. It consists of beliefs and values that fuel the brand's outer layer and helps audiences discern what the real beliefs are behind the brand's behavior. As marketers, we can voice what a brand's outer layer consists of. But the truth of their inner layers is completely dependent upon the voices inside the heads of their audience.
Story logic is simply the linkage between a brand's inner and outer layer. When what we see or what we are told about a brand's promise runs contrary to the value or belief we ascribe to that brand, the logic chain is broken and the story becomes something that doesn't make sense.
In the contest between Romney and Obama, it was relatively easy to infer that each brand had polar opposite inner layers. One was driven by the belief in strong government; the other put greater stock in the private sector. From a social perspective, one candidate held more liberal beliefs and values and his opponent's were more conservative. We were able to infer the difference in values and beliefs from each candidate's outer layer promises and plans to support specific policies.
However, when one looks at the many surveys taken prior to Election Day, a few stand out. They are those that reflect the relative consistency between each candidate's outer and inner layer.
In a poll taken by Time Magazine, one month prior to the election, readers were asked, "Which candidate is more truthful, Obama or Romney?" Obama outpaced Romney 72% vs. 28%. In a similar poll conducted by Newhouse in October, Obama's ads were seen as more truthful than Romney's, 42% vs. 30%. Whether you give credence to these polls or others that asked similar questions, we all know that Romney was often described by pundits as a "flip-flopper." "Flip-flopping" occurs when a brand's outer layer is perceived as a moving target. The biggest blow to Romney's story logic came from his secretly filmed 47% comment that was picked up and repeatedly viewed on YouTube and other media outlets. Despite Romney's admission that this statement didn't reflect his true feelings, it created a great deal of dissonance. Dissonance is the enemy of story logic.
Some have argued that Romney's ever-changing outer layer resulted from efforts to be all things to his highly fractionalized party. But in Presidential elections as with brands, the perceived consistency between beliefs, values, and actions has a great deal to do with winning votes or customers. Lack of layer consistency, perceived or real, can only result in confusion, dislike, and distrust -- or all of the above. It is hard to know if Romney would have won had there been a stronger link between what he stood for and what he was promising to deliver. Arguably, stronger story logic would have turned off certain factions at the expense of others.
On the other hand, Obama had the story logic advantage. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his actions and promises, his consistency was rarely called into question. Clearly, he had obstacles to overcome given the worse economy since the Great Depression and social policies that were labeled by many as socialistic. But unlike Romney, the link between his outer and inner layer was unwavering.
I'm often asked what is more important, a brand's inner layer or its outer layer. Rather than address that question head on, I often defer to brand success stories like Apple, The Ritz Hotel, North Face, Nike, and others that show how important it is to make certain that both layers are well defined and appeal to audiences large enough to foster growth. But what I believe is more important than either layer itself is the logical integrity between the values and beliefs a brand stands for and its actual or implied behavior. As with stories, brands depend on audiences concluding for themselves that what is portrayed is believable and authentic.
Jim Signorelli is CEO of ESW Partners, a marketing communications agency based in Chicago specializing in branding. He recently published a book, StoryBranding Creating Standout Brands through the Power of Story. For more information, contact @jimsignorelli or visit www.eswpartners.com/storybranding to download a free chapter.