Ah, differentiation – the Holy Grail of branding – the clear and compelling difference we all seek. Differentiation is the magical sense that a thing is “in a class by itself,” the smiling, winking understanding that after this leader burst on the scene, “they broke the mold.”
Until Sarah Palin was selected, the Dems monopolized the imagery of the down-to-earth and every-day. Hillary “found her voice” when downing straight shots in working-class bars. The Democrats – party of working-class iconography by heritage – gagged on the brie-eating Obama until Biden renewed their street creds with his Irish-Catholic image of scrappy guy from Scranton and lunch-bucket constituency.
Now Sarah Palin confounds this imagery. She blurs the perceived gap between every-day Democrats and out-of-touch Republicans. Sarah Palin came from unremarkable background and serves macaroni and cheese to a hubby and five kids. She gives Biden, with his paunch and red tie, trouble saying that Republicans don’t hear Americans’ worries “around the kitchen table.”
This campaign will be a non-stop struggle to stake out meaningful differences via cheap shots and crude tactics. The Democrats have the easier time of it with this story line: The last eight years have been horrible. Bush is a nincompoop. A costly war and flagging economy comprise a solid case for change. The subtext is first African-American candidate and legions of (what my cousin calls) pants-wetting young supporters flocking to mystical cries for national renewal.
The Republicans – until Palin – have been all over the map in promoting their candidate. Now – with Palin – they are still all over the map, but they have a potentially powerful, differentiating case. Palin makes possible this winning brand story:
1 We are the same – same as you. Military brat and veteran McCain, and beautiful home-town Palin, fertile mom, and firebrand political reformer a la Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Deeds.
2 We are different – different from them. Different from Washington politicians (McCain as “maverick,” Palin as backwoods reformer). Obama is a wonk from Harvard, Biden a career Washington wind-bag and hack.
3 America is number one. The country is not in shambles, and Americans do not need or want to be like everyone else in the world. Though we screw up (Iraq) or over-reach (mortgage-backed bonds), we do so for constructive reasons. If we do wrong (racial prejudice), we correct it.
The potential winning line of this campaign – McCain to Obama:
“If you think America is a sad, declining, unjust country, just look in the mirror. You yourself are living proof of our greatness and justness as a people.”