Yo Basso
Apr 20, 2017

Branding versus campaigning: a case for brand governance

A marketing leader from Uber gives his personal view on the intersection of branding and politics.

Yo Basso
Yo Basso

I've only recently realized that my love for branding and politics stems from the exact same place—the pursuit of power. The optics of the respective games look different—the players, the rules, even the objectives feel distinct and foreign from one another. Maybe that's what has prevented me from making this connection sooner. But make no mistake about it, the essence of the game is identical: the acquisition and retention of power, relative to your competitors. Since this realization, I've caught myself frequently exploring and juxtaposing the two topics to great surprise, delight, and entertainment. Here are some of my observations.

Power is, quite simply, an ability to make someone do something that they otherwise wouldn't do. The link between power and politics is clear (insert power hungry politician jockeying for power; you can see him, right?) Politics are the activities associated with acquiring power. But the link is much weaker between power and branding, and that's curious to me, because branding is also, like politics, the activities associated with acquiring power.

There are relatively quick and easy ways to acquire power. I like to categorize those efforts in the 'Campaigning' bucket. For instance, you develop a campaign for ABC product with XYZ goal in mind, and if the campaign accomplishes the intended goal (i.e. increase market share, hit X sales target, or become the President of the United States), you've acquired power in the market. All too familiar, right?

But there are also more difficult and rewarding ways to acquire and hold on to that power over time. I categorize those initiatives in the 'Branding' or 'Brand Governance' bucket. The one similarity I've observed between the beginning of the Trump and Obama presidencies, if I may dare, was that both administrations realized painfully (and quickly) that governing is quite different than campaigning. Now sure, regardless of your political affiliations, you can reasonably argue that Obama and Trump were both natural campaigners and less so governors (albeit at least one of them had experience before walking into The White House). They both had a clear and simple vision for America (XYZ goal) and had an innate ability to connect that campaign message with their core audiences for its intended purpose.

When I look around the marketing and political landscapes today, I see a torrential downpour of campaigns at a volume that we've never experienced or witnessed before. But amid all these campaigns, there's very little branding happening. Why? What about the game of brand governance makes it so much more different, difficult, and I'd argue valuable, than campaigning? Here are a few starting thoughts (definitely not exhaustive):

1. Governing isn't sexy—Because it's hard. The campaign rallies go away. The honeymoon period, where you've been whispering sweet nothings to one another, is over. The days are longer, slower and more deliberate; the decisions are less clear; and the skills that helped get you elected or hit that sales target aren't helping you govern. 

2. Governing takes time. There's no instant gratification here, nor is there an end date. My manager defined it best: "The very essence of campaigns are that they start and end." My favorite analogy to illustrate this environment is you've won the coveted position of captain of the reputation (or brand) of a massive oil tanker. You're at sea among your competitors, have customers on board you're fighting to retain, and are trying to convince others to come on board with you. Now what? Are you on course or not? If not, why not—and how do you plan on changing direction? Do you have the courage and conviction, as well as the support of your people, to stay the course?

3. Governing is less black and white. It can messy. And ambiguous. Rarely are there clearly defined winners and losers like there are in campaigns. Going back to the oil tanker analogy, you make a change in direction and will only see that result 12+ months from now. And that result will be buried with a lot of noisy data, disallowing you and your team from taking credit or blame for the actions you commissioned.

Now, I'm most certainly not arguing to stop campaigning and start immediately branding. There is a clear relationship between campaigning and brand governing. Campaigns generate brand power, albeit predominantly for the short-term; brand governing nurtures and harnesses that power over time. If you're invested in the pursuit of power for the long haul, both branding and campaigning must be happening concurrently. If you're only pumping out campaign after another, you're relinquishing a tremendous amount of brand power by playing a very short-sighted game relative to your competitors.

In your marketing organization, there must be appetite, understanding, and commitment surrounding the challenges and opportunities of brand governance. Given the distinctions between branding and campaigning, we must vehemently resist the urge to endlessly tug on that campaign lever. Rather, we must govern—with intention, care and preparation, and with great vision and leadership.

Yo Basso is head of SF marketing at Uber in San Francisco.

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