As I’ve discussed in three prior posts, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign truly revolves around a message of “change.” This has obviously been a successful strategy for him. So does that mean his rivals are right to try to blur his message or steal his thunder?
I think so, for each of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, albeit for different reasons. From his 2004 presidential race through at least 2006, Edwards’ highest-level messaging talked about “Two Americas” (bad – a problem that needs solving) versus “One America” (good – a goal that should be accomplished). But “change” has long been a top secondary message for Edwards. As far back as February, 2006, Edwards’ main slogan was “We want to change America and together we will.”
And so Edwards is now engaging in a classic marketing technique, seen in areas as diverse as politics and information technology. He’s saying “You know that ‘change’ my rival is getting so much attention for? I’ve offered that too, all along.” And because he’s laid the groundwork, he can do that credibly.
Saying “Edwards is like Obama” does create a need to show how “Edwards is like Obama, but better.” But there’s little downside there; to succeed, Edwards had to show how he was better than Obama in any case. Presumably, Edwards thinks the “better” will come from his policy focus or, in some cases, his persona (Southern, a little older, drug-free, etc.).
What Clinton is doing, by way of contrast, is saying “You know that ‘change’ my rival is getting so much attention for? I’ve all along offered a version of ‘change’ that’s actually better than his.” A classic sign of this technique is when somebody literally disputes the definition of a marketing term, as Clinton did in Saturday’s New Hampshire debate, and is doing ever more. This isn’t like Edwards’ strategy of saying “I’m offering the same thing that you like about him; decide among us on other grounds.” Rather, Clinton is saying “I’m offering something different than he is, and it’s actually more likely to do what you want than his version is.” Clinton is asserting that her experienced nuts-and-bolts approach to getting things done will actually produce concrete change results – and that’s what voters should focus on – while she portrays Obama as a great-talking idealist who hasn’t actually accomplished very much tangible, and also may not do so in the future.
Will this wholly blunt Obama’s message of change? Of course not. It won’t even come close to siphoning off most Obama supporters. But will it help Clinton supporters stay with her, rather than defecting to rival candidates whose main selling point is the promise of “change”? Absolutely.
So co-opting Obama’s change message is a good strategy for Clinton just as it is for Edwards, albeit in different ways and for different reasons.
Previous posts in this series:
- Part 1: Different approaches to marketing “change”
- Part 2: Competing definitions of “change”
- Part 3: Implicit messaging in support of “change” positioning