When a product, person, or organization has to enter a particularly hostile or challenging market, they essentially have three choices: 1) Stay true to who or what you are, 2) Change who you are, or 3) Change how you’re perceived. It doesn’t matter if it’s product sales, non-profit work, or politics, perception matters, and in a media driven culture, how you’re perceived is just as important as who you are.
In looking at politics, this applies to the campaign for “Change” by Barack Obama. He has the exact same choices in this presidential campaign – Stay true to who he is, change who he is, or change how he’s perceived. The policy information indicates he’s a liberal. According to the National Journal, he’s rated the most liberal person in the Senate in 2007. The reasons for that assessment seem to be sound:
• He’s criticized the Supreme Court for upholding the partial birth abortion ban. He’s pro-abortion all the way through the pregnancy.
• He favors higher taxes on Social Security, retirement income, and regular income.
• He supports massive increases in domestic spending and government regulation.
• He opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement.
• He voted against John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court.
• He supports giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
• The list continues, which is why he’s gained the endorsement of moveon.org – as the Wall Street Journal says, “One of the most radical groups within the liberal universe.”
So whether you like Obama or not, each of these issues are classic liberal positions, and he has a problem if he wants to appeal to voters outside the far left segment of the population. So what’s the choice?
1) He can stay true to himself and his values. That’s a vote for authenticity, but in this situation it keeps him in a niche. If he campaigned publically on the list above and his other similar positions, he’d be relegated to a Left wing niche of the party. (Remember – he’s rated more liberal than Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton).
2) He can change. I don’t see that happening. Whatever his politics, I think Obama is a man of honor. He is true to what he believes, and hasn’t shown me that he’s the type of person who could compromise those beliefs. So that’s out.
3) Change your perception in the marketplace. In my opinion, this is the path Obama has chosen. Knowing that his liberal views would relegate him in the direction of fringe status and leave him open to Conservative attacks, he has chosen a strategy of being dismissive of “labels.” He calls those labels simplistic and outmoded. He blames categories and labels as obstacles to solving problems. He’s been quoted saying, “Let me tell you something. There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics. It’s common sense.”
By using this strategy (as I’ve written before) he’s deflecting people from his real positions, by changing the way he’s perceived. In my recent memory Republicans have been very effective at dismissing Democrats as “liberal” and Obama knows this. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran as moderates, because the data indicates that this country is center to center right on most issues – particularly when it comes to Presidential elections.
Is this strategy wrong? Not at all. While some people might call it deceptive, it can be used for all kinds of issues. Las Vegas recast itself a number of years ago as a “family entertainment destination.” Tribal gambling on reservations has been repositioned as “Native American self-reliance.”
From a positive direction, in my book “Branding Faith” I write about the importance of a powerful brand story, and how that story can help a religious organization or non-profit cut through the media clutter and connect with an audience.
For good or bad, be aware of brand repositioning. From politics, to business, religion, sports, entertainment and more, in a media driven culture, it’s not just who you are, it’s how you’re perceived that counts.