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The Branding of the Presidency

The race for the White House is turning into a brandapalooza for marketers as products and ad slogans assume increasingly prominent roles in the campaign - almost as if this were the first officially sponsored presidential election.

Thanks to Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, the foremost campaign brand by far is Heinz ketchup, as typified by a question asked by Jon Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show," when Mr. Kerry appeared on the program Aug. 24: "Is it true that every time I use ketchup, your wife gets a nickel?" (Mr. Kerry's reply: "Would that it were.")

The Heinz mentions have become so frequent that some Republicans have started selling a brand of ketchup called W. Bill Zachary, a banker who co-founded the ketchup company in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., described W in an interview as "an alternative to Heinz, to give Republican voters a fun way to show their stripes." Ads on the W brand's Web site (wketchup.com) declare: "You don't support Democrats. Why should your ketchup?"

The H. J. Heinz Company has even posted a statement on its own Web site (heinz.com) addressing the subject, describing its ketchup as "a nonpartisan condiment that simply stands for great taste." (Mrs. Kerry, as the widow of Senator John Heinz, is heir to the Heinz family fortune; according to the statement, the family trusts and endowments own less than 4 percent of the company's stock.)

There have also been campaign cameo appearances by Diet Coke, a can of which is almost always within reach of Senator John Edwards, Mr. Kerry's running mate; the Wendy's fast-food chain, where Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, celebrated their wedding anniversary at a Newburgh, N.Y., store on July 30, accompanied by the Kerrys; and Bush's baked beans, which is family-owned but not by that Bush family.

Still, the Bushes have played their part in connecting Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues. For instance, when Laura Bush, the first lady, appeared on "The Tonight Show" on May 19, she responded to a question from Jay Leno about what she did during a recent visit to Las Vegas by echoing the popular slogan from the city's tourism ads, replying, "Jay, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

And during a speech on Tuesday at the Republican National Convention, the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, said they could probably persuade their father and mother to "shake it like a Polaroid picture," citing a lyric from the OutKast song "Hey Ya."

The new prevalence of brand names and themes is indicative of the growing role played by commercial culture in American society, even in the once-sacrosanct realm of politics, marketing and corporate identity, consultants say.

"Americans are more familiar and comfortable navigating the world of product brands than they are the world of politics," said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates in New York, a consultant owned by the WPP Group, "so using brands to figure out what politicians are about is inevitable."

The other side of the coin holds true as well, said Lucian James, president of Agenda, a brand strategy consultant in San Francisco.

"Because brands are a huge part of the public consciousness, and are how we identify ourselves, mentioning brands serves as a useful shortcut for politicians to try to get closer to the people they represent," Mr. James said.

That is particularly true as it becomes "impossible to divorce politics from pop culture," he added, citing the crossover into public life of celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, who also spoke at the convention on Tuesday.

The branding of the 2004 election cycle may have begun in April, Mr. James said, with the extensive coverage of a passage from the book "Plan of Attack," in which the author, Bob Woodward, quoted Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state, as warning President Bush of the consequence of invading Iraq by citing "the Pottery Barn rule" of "you break it, you own it." The quote was so widely publicized that executives of Pottery Barn, the furnishings retail chain owned by Williams-Sonoma, took pains to tell reporters that the stores have no such policy. (In other words, what breaks at Pottery Barn stays at Pottery Barn.)

Michael Watras, president of Straightline International in New York, a brand identity consultant, sees the Pottery Barn episode as a cautionary tale.

"Ultimately, brands can be put at risk, high risk, from the fallout" surrounding politics, Mr. Watras said. "It's an area they need to stay away from because of the potential to polarize consumers," especially when polls show the electorate so closely divided.

Mr. Watras drew a distinction between candidates mentioning or using products that have been part of their lives "before they decided to run," as Diet Coke and Wendy's have been for Mr. Edwards, and the marketers in question taking out ads to take advantage of the publicity and attention.

"If Coke says, 'Edwards drinks Diet Coke and you should, too,' that's in bad taste," he added.

Indeed, Heinz and the other companies behind the brands of the 2004 campaign say they will eschew exploiting their political exposure.

The maker of Diet Coke, the Coca-Cola Company, is "delighted Senator Edwards is such an avid fan," said Mart Martin, a spokesman in Atlanta, "and we'll gladly accept his endorsement." But, he said, "there are no plans to capitalize on it."

Bob Bertini, a spokesman for Wendy's International in Dublin, Ohio, said: "We appreciate our repeat customers, whether vice presidential candidates or visitors from the neighborhood. But we just didn't think it was appropriate to do anything with it.

"We certainly made sure his order was correct," Mr. Bertini added, laughing. Wendy's has experience in the campaign arena, having enjoyed considerable publicity in 1984, when Vice President Walter F. Mondale, in a debate, quoted its ad slogan at the time: "Where's the beef?"

Steve Harrison, a spokesman at Bush Brothers & Company in Knoxville, Tenn., the maker of Bush's baked beans since 1908, recalled a campaign event in 2000 during which George W. Bush "visited the kitchen of a homeless shelter and held up a can of our beans."

Asked about the coincidence of Heinz selling baked beans as well as ketchup, Mr. Harrison said: "They're better known for baked beans in Europe and we're better known for baked beans in the States. And we're happy with that."

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 2, 2004.

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