Having spent more than a decade in the world of advertising, I suppose it's only natural I tend to view political candidates and their campaigns as brands. Brands can be broken down into two components: a rational offer (I buy Product X because it does Y) and an emotional appeal (I buy Product X because it makes me feel Y). Of course, the most successful brands do both, presenting a compelling reason for consumers to choose one product over another.
In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination right now we're witnessing a battle between two powerful brands. Yes, John Edwards remains a factor in Iowa and Bill Richardson has the aura of a potential dark horse, but in reality it has boiled down to a two-person contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama much more quickly than many expected.
And if you look at the head-to-head clash between the brands of Clinton and Obama, you can see a very apt analogy in the long (and ongoing) battle between two of the most successful brands in U.S. history: Microsoft and Apple.
Hillary Clinton, of course, is like Microsoft. Her campaign is a disciplined corporate behemoth that is based almost entirely around a rational offer (in this case, experience) but has very limited emotional appeal. That's not to say Democrats don't view her favorably -- they do -- but she does not excite the kind of emotions in voters that make her a compelling choice.
Even Clinton's strategy is based on a model similar to the one that fueled Microsoft's rise: Gobble up enough money, talent and endorsements (i.e., market share) to squeeze out smaller competitors and become the ''inevitable'' choice.
Microsoft achieved dominance not necessarily because people felt any joy in buying its products but because at the end of the day, thanks to ruthless tactics and execution, it became impractical for most people to choose anything else. Clinton hopes to achieve the same.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is like Apple. His brand is driven primarily by its emotional appeal: He is exciting and fresh to some, hip and cool to others. Most important, his brand inspires hope and optimism, two exceedingly powerful emotions that allow people to make a statement about themselves by casting a vote for him.
Apple achieved a great deal of success -- though not parity with Microsoft -- in much the same way by cultivating its image as hip, cool, and anti-authoritarian. For many people, buying a Mac has been as much about making a statement about who they are as it has been about buying a piece of electronics.
Incorporated in 1980, Apple caught the public imagination in 1984 with a visually arresting ad that perfectly captured the essence of its brand and juxtaposed it with that of Microsoft, and so it's fitting that one of the first real intriguing moments of this year's campaign was a re-creation of that ad on YouTube pitting the upstart Obama against the front-runner Clinton.
Seven months into the campaign, that imagery has lasted much longer and developed more fully than most expected. Clinton remains the front-runner, but Obama has shown that his brand has staying power while Clinton's now looks less dominant than it once did.
Of course, we know what happened with the Microsoft-Apple rivalry. Microsoft effectively vanquished Apple as a serious threat before turning around and forming a strategic alliance with it in 1997. It's too early to say whether the analogy will play itself out the same way with Clinton and Obama, but it's certainly not out of the question. Then again, maybe the analogy falls apart, and this time Apple wins.