Turning liabilities into assets.
I've talked about it many times right here. Every four years we get the opportunity to watch the most important branding contest anywhere. And if we can just pry off our partisan hats for a little while we can really learn from the best of the best.
Of course I'm talking about the presidential elections of the United States.
In 2012 Nate Silver and Mitt Romney tutored us on the importance of precise research – both accurate and inaccurate. Four years before that Barack Obama, Chuck Grassley, and Sarah Palin gave us a masters' class on messaging with “Yes we can,” “Pulling the plug on Grandma,” and “Death panels.” And as far back as 1960 Kennedy and Nixon's debate was a great lesson in how media can change public opinion and create or damage a brand.
Needless to say, the 2016 race is no different. This year the candidates on both sides of the aisle are also living laboratories for how to build a brand and relate to your audience.
Or how not to.
Clinton and Bush showed us what branding looks like for an established, mature product. Trump and Sanders were examples of how challenger brands can generate passionate customers. Rubio demonstrated how dangerous it is to allow your competition to create your persona and then reinforce that brand image with your own actions. And Ted Cruz was a shining example of what happens when you don't change your liabilities into assets.
Ronald Reagan did it when the then 72-year old president was running for reelection against a 56-year old Walter Mondale. Reagan ended speculation that he was too old to be president with the words, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”
- 3M did it when they turned a glue with weak adhesive properties into Post-It Notes.
- Avis did it when they applauded their also-ran status with the line, “We're number two. We try harder.”
- Harley Davidson did it when they bragged about their waiting list, suggesting it demonstrated commitment to uncompromising quality and the undying loyalty of their customers.
- Paul Masson used the same strategy with their tagline, “We will sell no wines before their time.”
- Harland Sanders did it when he promoted extra greasy fried chicken with the line: “Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's finger lickin' good!”
So how could Ted Cruz have used this strategy? Quite simply by accepting his obvious liability – that he's not likeable – and turning it to his advantage. While Trump and Sanders were busy exploiting voter anger and criticizing their competitors for their establishment stands, Cruz could have risen above it all. He could have used the disdain his fellow senators have for him to his advantage. He could have confirmed his anti-establishment position by celebrating his lack of popularity. He could have positioned his unlikability as the result of doing the right thing, not the popular thing. He could have demonstrated his undying commitment to his constituency by turning his liability into an asset.
Unfortunately for Cruz, this alchemistic exercise of turning lead into gold is very hard to do. It not only requires the profound self-awareness of knowing what your actual weaknesses are, and the willingness to face them, but also the courage of being able to expose your vulnerabilities. And it demands the creative foresight to pursue a less than popular strategy.
The ancient Greek aphorism – “Know Thyself” – is commonly attributed to Socrates but stems from a more ancient source and lies at the root of all philosophy. It also is the basis for turning liabilities into assets where an authentic truth becomes the foundation for a compelling and sustainable brand position.
Sometimes that positioning comes from promoting your strengths. And sometimes it is built by paradoxically turning liabilities into assets. Difficult? Perhaps. But the results, as Reagan and Colonel Sanders have shown us, can be very impressive.