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Controlling the Brand

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Consider this passage from today’s New York Times report on the rise and fall of Obama social secretary Desirée Rogers (my italics):

Long before the State Dinner party crashers and the tension with her White House colleagues and the strain in her relationship with the first lady, Desirée Rogers began to understand she was in trouble when David Axelrod summoned her to his office last spring to scold her. Ms. Rogers had appeared in another glossy magazine, posing in a White House garden in a borrowed $3,495 silk pleated dress and $110,000 diamond earrings. But if the image was jarring in a time of recession, Mr. Axelrod was as bothered by the words and her discussion of “the Obama brand” and her role in promoting it, according to people informed about the conversation.
“The president is a person, not a product,” he was said to tell her. “We shouldn’t be referring to him as a brand.”

Now here’s how Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe and Mike Isikoff describe Axelrod’s own role in the White House:

Axelrod wants to maintain the “brand”—a candidate who can appeal in red and blue states, who can pull people together, who aims for a more noble sort of politics—while also showing that Obama is tough enough to govern in a dangerous and uncertain world. Change is good; “Obambi” is not.

And here’s how Bespoke Branding describes Axelrod’s role in the Obama campaign:

In the midst of one of the most critical social and economic times in recent American history emerged a protagonist with the audacity to hope for change; behind him was a strategy that was just as bold. David Axelrod, chief campaign strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, manufactured the “Obama brand” for presidential success in one of the most precipitous national climates to date. Through the strategic utilization of key messages, innovate use of social media & grassroots fundraising efforts Axelrod built the vehicle for what has been widely regarded as one of the most historic presidential campaigns and elections ever.

The message: good branding experts never talk in public about “branding.” Indeed, that’s a critical part of the branding process. On the other hand, the internecine struggle among senior Obama staffers that is now being played out in the New York Times and Washington Post tells us a good deal about the discipline and character of those involved, just as it tells us much about the journalistic practices of these two papers. Both have a hearty appetite for court gossip, and both wind up being useful pawns for their respective leakers. The process is not very dignified, but it does point to a senior staff in disarray.

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