Creating your brand around a compelling story and staying true to that brand story yields good results.
I learned storytelling in the binary world of political campaigns, and one of the things that’s stuck with me all of these years later is, absent fundraising prowess and gerrymandered districts, the candidate with the most persuasive narrative usually wins.
While it’s rare for a business to see the immediate results of their efforts in the way candidates do on Election Day, 2018 has brought forth some sterling examples of how to create and drive a brand narrative that growing businesses would be well advised to follow.
That said, what separates a merely good brand from a powerful brand is the ability to adhere to that narrative throughout a range of touchpoints with your consumers (or, in this case, voters).
Here’s my list of the best and worst brand stories for the 2018 election.
Stacey Abrams (Georgia Governor)–This is, by far and away, the most powerful and inspiring narrative of the year, in part because of the woman and in part because of the story’s location.
At age 17, Stacey Abrams became the first African-American valedictorian at her high school, and as such, was invited to the Governor’s mansion along with all of the other valedictorians in the state. Her parents, who were ministers, didn’t own a car so they took the city bus. When it arrived at the Governor’s residence, they disembarked and walked up the driveway to the security gate. The white guard, who had seen the Abrams’ get off the bus, rebuffed them, saying, “This is a private event” because he couldn’t believe they belonged.
Fast forward 27 years and Stacey Abrams may walk through the front door of the Governor’s mansion tonight as the first black woman to be elected as Governor in any state, let alone Georgia. In between, she’s made stops at the University of Texas, Yale Law School, and deputy city attorney of Atlanta before entering the private sector as co-founder of Nourish; a beverage company focused on infants and toddlers. Did I also mention she’s the author of eight romantic suspense novels and served 10-years in the Georgia legislature as Minority House Leader?
Her brand of inclusiveness and opportunity has allowed her to comfortably campaign in big cities as well as rural parts of the state where most Democrats haven’t dared to travel in decades. The power and resonance of her “up by the bootstraps” story allowed her supporters to keep faith with her when she revealed she was behind in paying her taxes, citing a history which is all too familiar for families trying to climb up the ladder of success. Her narrative has inspired record turnout among younger voters as well as African-Americans who often sit out midterm elections.
Election Night Update: No winner has been declared yet.
Amy McGrath (Kentucky CD 6)–In 2016, President Trump carried this district by over 15 points, and the incumbent Republican congressman won by 20 points so it would be safe to assume no Democrat could win here in these polarized times. Guess again.
Meet Amy McGrath, first female Marine to fly in an F/A 18 on a combat mission. McGrath served for 20 years in the Marine Corps, during which time she flew 89 combat missions bombing al Qaeda and the Taliban. Her military epic, “Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq” recounts the tale.
Her ads have stayed laser-focused on her story, giving nominal Republicans a reason to consider voting for a Democrat who resonates with them. Whether you agree with her on the issues or not, if you asked someone in a bar, “Who is Amy McGrath?” they’d likely tell you she’s the fighter pilot running for Congress. That’s how you know you have a strong brand.
Update: Close, but no cigar for Amy McGrath. She outperformed every Democrat in the district but still lost 51-48.
MJ Hegar (Texas CD 31)–In a district even redder than McGrath’s, MJ Hegar is using her military story in one of the best biographical ads of the election cycle. She’s cast herself as the glass ceiling breaking outsider who received the Purple Heart during one of her three tours as an Air Force pilot in Afghanistan.
“While I was serving in Afghanistan, no one ever asked me whether I was a Republican or a Democrat–we were focused on accomplishing our mission,” she says online and on the stump. After coming home, she proudly notes she fought a Democratic administration and a Republican Congress to ensure all jobs in the military are open for competition to both men and women.
Her rationale for running for Congress was to ‘kick in another door’ against a longtime incumbent who wouldn’t take a meeting with her when she was fighting the Pentagon. Her chances of success have always been steep, but she has defined the terms of the debate just like a good military general.
Election Night Update: Hegar is in a dogfight (no pun intended) as she trails the incumbent GOP congressman by less than 4,000 votes.
There are always so many to choose from in this category, but the common denominator in every one of these candidates (all men I hasten to mention) undermined or contradicted their brand story, and while partisanship might save them in this election, they’ve suffered a break in trust with their audience from which they are unlikely ever to recover.
Randy Bryce (Wisconsin 01)– Eighteen months ago, the Democratic grassroots lit up like a Manhattan skyline for the man nicknamed “Iron Stache.” His introductory video went viral in part because he dared to challenge House Speaker, Paul Ryan, but also because of his story as an ironworker, Army veteran and cancer survivor who sported a very prominent mustache that said “blue collar.”
Unfortunately, there’s only so many dents in a story before it all breaks apart. In Bryce’s case, his credibility never recovered from the news that he paid off years old child support debts two months after announcing he was running for Congress and that he had DUI on his record. In the meantime, Ryan announced he was retiring, thereby taking away Bryce’s class-based foil of the powerful Speaker who was beholden to the rich.
Duncan Hunter (California CD 50)–When your backstory centers around your bravery and integrity while serving your country as a Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and you base your pitch to voters on your hawkishness as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, you better be squeaky clean.
When the government indicts you for converting over $250,00 in campaign funds to pay for embarrassing personal expenses and filing false campaign finance records, you’ve lost one of your two legs. Then when you tell the press your wife is responsible for the mess, you look like the character from Monty Python who loses both arms in a sword fight and claims, “‘Tis merely a flesh wound.”
The partisan makeup of his district will likely spare Hunter the ignominy of defeat, but his story is unreconcilable, which means he’ll be looking for a new job outside of Congress sooner rather than later.
Ted Cruz (Texas Senate)–When your tagline is “Tough as Texas,” your swagger needs to walk in the door 30 seconds before you do. While it’s likely Cruz gets re-elected in red Texas, it’s going to be difficult to keep that moniker after he had to genuflect to President Trump who came to campaign for Cruz’ embattled re-election this year. For those of you short on political history, the two have had an arm’s length relationship after the then-Republican nominee, Trump, called Cruz’s wife “ugly” and erroneously claimed Cruz’s father participated in the Kennedy assassination. His neutering by Trump was famously captured by this ad. So much for his hopes for 2024.
Election Night Update: Cruz beat Beto O’Rourke by less than three points in a state that Trump carried in 2016 by seven points.
Brian Kemp (Georgia Governor)–I have to include Kemp because he is running against Stacey Abrams, and he is Georgia’s current Secretary of State. As such, he is in charge of elections. Since he won the Republican nomination, there have been widespread reports of disenfranchising voters by removing them from voter rolls, limiting polling locations in heavily minority counties, an investigation he launched against Democrats for voter irregularities with no evidence. On Election Day, there’ve been reports of non-operational polling sites in heavily African-American communities for reasons that include missing power cords.
If Kemp were running on competence, he would lose in a landslide; however, he’s running on naked appeals to race (and this is Georgia, after all). Should he win tonight, he’s going to have a challenging job unifying the state during his four-year term.
There are another half-dozen candidates and officeholders who I could include in this category (again, all men), but I think the point is clear. Whether it’s in politics or business, a story to connect with your audience is critical while breaking your brand’s narrative is fatal.
Enjoy your respite from all of the campaign ads. The 2020 election is right around the corner. Until then, get your story straight.