Hillary Clinton Needs a Brand Makeover, and Fast

In marketing talk, Bernie Sanders has a "purpose-driven brand." 

It's simple and very much of his own making: Income inequality is unfair and bad for the U.S. economy, and that unfairness is being pushed by Wall Street greed, which is benefiting no one except the 1%.

Hillary Clinton is having a hard time matching that message. The general election is still nine months away, but Clinton's campaign is facing big challenges both in defeating Sanders and countering his touchstones of authenticity as populist street fighter. 

"She needs to start to say why she's running," says Drew Train, managing partner at Oberland, a New York-based branding agency specializing in non-profits and social responsibility. "Everyone knows Bernie is running to upend the apple cart, to create a new economic system. People think Hillary is running because its her turn, or because it's a foregone conclusion or because she wants to be the first female president -- but none of those things benefit me as a consumer or a voter." 

One nagging problem for Hillary Clinton is that she has been on the public stage for more than 25 years. She is part of the "establishment" in a year when the winners of the New Hampshire primary -- Sanders and Donald Trump -- are not the favorites of their partys' leaderships. Peddling pragmatism just isn't cutting it.

One nagging assessment, as framed by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in an interview earlier this week, is a perception that she lacks "trustworthiness." In the interview held just prior to the New Hampshire vote, Clinton countered that the impression is a by-product of a long-running campaign by Republican and right-wing groups to attack her character as much as her position on any issue.

Clinton's challenge, says Tom Christmann, chief creative officer of DiMassimo Goldstein, a New York advertising and communications agency, is to turn the focus of her campaign away from her and onto those very issues that she feels most passionate.

"She needs to not make it about her," Christmann said in a phone interview in New York. "She may not be able to completely change certain perceptions, but she needs to say, yes, I'm a women and of course people are going to try to tear me down, but I'm focused on what's important, which is you and your concerns."

Clinton's image problems, Trains says, are due in part to the confines of the typical political campaign. Like most politicians running for president, Clinton's team is looking at myriad polls and focus-group studies, trying to figure out what voters want, and then tailoring a message much as a corporation seeks to craft a brand to sell a product or service.

That's a reasonable strategy, Train says, when all the other candidates are doing the same. But Clinton is facing a candidate in Bernie Sanders who is delivering something very different. 

Whereas Sanders released a soaring campaign anthem set to Simon & Garfunkel's America, Clinton ran a reasonable video about how her many qualifications to do a job as difficult as being president. To be sure, Clinton's more recent advertisement highlighting her many years championing the needs of children speaks to filling this "purpose" vacuum.

"Brands need to go back to purpose -- why did you create your business in the first place," Train said. "Hillary hasn't been able to do that convincingly. I believe she's as ardently a defender of people, low-income and otherwise as Bernie is, but she just can't get out of that consulted, marketed, disciplined space."

Sanders handed Clinton a whopping defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, out-polling the former New York senator 60% to 38%. Clinton, exit polls show, is failing to reach young people. In fact, she's failing to reach just about anyone but folks like herself -- men and women over 65. The two candidates face-off tonight in a PBS debate from Milwaukee.

Executing a brand makeover for someone who has been around as long as Clinton won't be easy. From the day Bill was elected president, Hillary made clear that she was her own person, not a traditional first lady. Since then, the public has watched the Clintons struggle through healthcare reform, the Monica Lewinski scandal the Whitewater investigation, a move to New York to run for senate and most recently, questions about Hillary's role in Benghazi, Libya and the use of a private email server.

Those many chapters invoke a lot of images, many of which continue to linger.

"You can't do this overnight, but there is enough time if she starts now," Train said. "Maybe has a kind of a Bulworth moment and shows a human side, kind of like she was in New Hampshire in 2008. Hillary has many structural and institutional advantages in this race. She has enough time to turn herself around, but she has to get moving."

She can start tonight at the PBS Democratic debate, which will be held in Milwaukee and starts at 9 p.m. The next voting stop for Democrats in the primaries is Nevada on Feb. 20, followed by  South Carolina on Feb. 27.

If you liked this article you might like

Rolling Stone Draws 'Robust' Interest for Majority Stake in Iconic Magazine

Politics Hang Heavy Over FCC's Review of Sinclair-Tribune Media

Cord Cutters Aren't Just Leaving Pay-TV Because of Price

Comcast Dodges Big Social, Moves Watchable In-House

How Facebook Is Trying to Avoid a Public Relations Disaster with Songwriters