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Analysis: Presidential Campaigns in Need of a Brand-Aid

Both Obama, Romney must shift campaigns into high gear

Obama: Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images; Romney: Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

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Neither presidential candidate is doing a great job in building the kind of brand that will motivate voters on Election Day. Take a look at any of the nation's major political polls and it's clear that both have the kind of scores that would cause any campaign or brand manager pause.

In the past three months since he became the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney's favorability poll numbers have barely budged, sticking at around 40 percent, per polls from Purple Strategies in the 12 battleground states. Even with a four-point favorability bump to 45 in the most recent poll released late Wednesday, Romney's unfavorable numbers top the favorable.

President Obama, who has had nearly four years to cultivate his brand, has stronger favorability ratings, but only slightly, at 47 percent-49 percent favorable/unfavorable. It's his job performance numbers that are doing in his brand, slipping to 43-51 approve/disapprove, down three points since last month's Purple Poll.

So, while Romney can't get his brand off the ground, Obama is faced with having to redefine his.

"In 2008, Obama created this strong brand of change, it was almost a movement. He had strong favorability ratings and an aura of positivity around him. He was a brand. Now he's a challenged brand," said Doug Usher, managing partner of Purple Insights.

As any brand manager knows, building a brand is a long, hard slog. But presidential candidates have a lot less time in which to do it. The ad environment doesn't make it any easier. Political ads run in a cluttered environment where viewers can barely distinguish one ad from the other, let alone if the candidate’s campaign or a PAC placed the ad. And unlike consumer brand campaigns, political campaigns are aimed at one day.

Romney would seem to have the tougher brand challenge. His brand has yet to take off the way other incumbent challengers have. Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 got favorability bumps into the 50s and 60s. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll, producing results similar to Purple's, found Romney's favorability the lowest for a presumptive nominee in 28 years.

"He has not done a robust job of defining himself as a robust alternative," said Bruce Haynes, a founding partner of Purple Strategies, who served as a media consultant to the Republican National Committee in 2008.

Part of the reason Romney's brand has remained in neutral is due to the federal election laws. Romney has to wait before unleashing the bulk of his advertising campaign until after he is the official GOP nominee. Up until the GOP convention in Charlotte, N.C., at the end of the month, Romney has had to depend on the PACs to carry him through. Without control of the messaging, his brand is suffering.

"One of the hidden dangers of the PACs is they can be brand killers," said Haynes. "PACs can only talk about issues and define the things they want the campaign to be about. Compared to traditional advertising, PACs are talking about the purchase decision without being able to talk about the product."

In stark contrast to Romney, most of the spending in favor of Obama has been from his own campaign. That has given him the opportunity to not only redefine his own brand, but also define the Romney brand before Romney gets a chance to define himself.

"Obama has been hammering from the beginning. The Obama guys decided early on they couldn't stand by the [original] brand promise, so let's disqualify the other guy," said Mark Squier, a former Democratic strategist and media advisor, and co-founder of Purple Strategies.

A number of Obama ads have attacked Romney on points that he might have used to define himself. Bain Capital, anyone? Many of the ads Obama launched this month directly attack Romney's character, such as the recent "Stretch" ad in which Obama says, "He pays less, you pay more."

"If you can't continue the Obama 2008 brand from candidate to incumbent, there is only one alternative: to box out things Romney can't say when he goes to camera," said Usher.