Sarah Palin: Diet Coke or New Coke?

This year’s 2008 election is starting to look a lot like a certain RC strategy case: Cola Wars. There is the election’s Coca-Cola, a historic and trusted brand, in John McCain. There is Pepsi, a youthful and fresh new brand, in Barack Obama. And there is Sarah Palin, John McCain’s brand extension – his Diet Coke…

The times they are a changin.

The country is ready to move in some sort of a different direction. Barack Obama bet his ticket on the zeitgeist. John McCain’s “Maverick” message has struggled to get through in the shadow of a certain U.S. President.

It is time to stop thinking like politicians and start thinking like marketers..

In the 2008 election, John S. McCain’s campaign in many ways echoes the rise of Coca-Cola as a global brand sensation in an iconic cherry-red can. Then there is Barack Obama, Pepsi after the “Pepsi Generation” campaign of the 1960s: exciting, new, with a blue label that begged you to pull it off the shelf.
Then there is Sarah Palin: John McCain’s Diet Coke: one chance to surprise the country with a fresh new brand extension, while still sticking with his tried and true flagship brand.

John S. McCain.A Household Brand

Coke’s brand is surely rooted in history, and elevated through unparalleled marketing genius. It has evolved from a counter-top elixir “for what ails ya” in the late 19th century to a symbol of American culture (famously being sold to World War II soldiers for 5 cents), to the world’s universal answer for quenching thirst in the present day.

John S. McCain has his own brand, the Maverick brand. Just like Coke, he is a household name, familiar and trustworthy to Americans, whether Donkeys, Elephants or miscellaneous. His brand is deeply and permanently rooted in history, from the confines of a 4 by 6 foot cell in Hanoi to the marble and wood paneled interior of Capitol Hill. Many have cast Mr. McCain as a man who drifts away from hard-line partisan politics and to quote his RNC speech “marches to the beat of his own drum.”

The idea of John McCain, the Maverick, may have come to light in his very first year as a member of the House in 1983, when he voted against Ronald Regan’s decision to deploy troops in Lebanon. Over the years, McCain has made a name for himself standing up to special interests, and pork-barrel spending. In 1992, he was one of three Republican senators to vote for Democratic campaign finance reform legislation. For over a decade, he famously crusaded to regulate the tobacco industry, and pushed for a $1.10-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund programs to cut underage smoking. He has even made statements indicating a willingness to consider abortion rights and gay marriage (or some form of civil union).

John McCain’s “sometimes against the party” voting record in many ways speaks to the genesis of his Maverick brand. Like Coca Cola, he is respected and established, with a strong personal story.

..but very few brands have the good fortune to operate without competition…

Barack Obama.a Brand of Change

In 1950, Pepsi began operating with a “Beat Coke” motto, and in 1963 launched its “Pepsi Generation” targeting the “young at heart,” cutting Coke’s sales share to a 2:1 margin. Coke leaned on its iconic image, calling itself “America’s Preferred Taste” and branching out to grow its name a as a global brand. In 1974, Pepsi launched the Pepsi challenge, where blind taste tests revealed that people actually preferred Pepsi to Coke.

It was an exciting time for beverage consumers everywhere. People who had never tried a carbonated soft drink before were coming out to the grocery stores in droves. The nation was ready for a change.

In similar fashion, Barack Obama arrived at the race to the Whitehouse with a devotion to move the country away from the failed Bush politics of the past eight years. In a country mired by seven years and $850 billion of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued job losses, a mortgage crisis, and a generally dismal economy, Mr. Obama, despite a thin Washington resume, was able to electrify the country and the youth electorate in particular.

In a blind taste test, Obama was the likely winner for Liberals. He was not a Republican, and was certainly not George Bush. He was a young senator with masterful skill as a powerful, yet poetic orator, which quickly evoked comparisons to JFK. He was against the war, and for repealing the Bush tax-cuts. And he had a great jump-shot. McCain was the older gentleman who needs a senior advisor to help him access news on the Internet.

Probably more relevant to the masses in drawing contrasts with Mr. Obama was Mr. McCain’s fervent support for the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his overall voting record, which despite exceptions where he took off his GOP party hat, aligned with George W. Bush and other Republican members of Congress. The Washington Post found McCain voted with the majority of his party on 88.3% of the votes. And as Barack Obama noted in his DNC speech, Mr. McCain has voted with President Bush 95% of the time. It was powerful and devastating “rhetoric” for Mr. McCain amongst Liberal voters and many Independents.

When Coke was up against a hip new Pepsi brand message, it did what it could to fight, by creating ads that questioned the validity of the Pepsi challenge, and ultimately, resorting to price-based competition, which as we all know is a dangerous path. For McCain, gaining ground in the election meant reaching back towards the conservative right that lost him the 2000 Republican primary. Mr. McCain has certainly not connected with family values neo-conservatives, many of whom question Mr. McCain’s affair with Cindy McCain during the Reagan years that quickly ended his first marriage, and his comments indicating openness to gay marriage and abortion.

In the fight of a Presidential campaign, McCain reversed many of his Mavericky positions, coming out decidedly pro-life, against gay marriage, and for the bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He has reached out to the Christian right by embracing the evangelical Christian pastor, Jerry Falwell (and delivering the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University), despite Mr. McCain’s earlier Maverick style claim that Mr. Falwell is one of America’s “agents of intolerance.” No longer the statesman who supported the off-shore drilling moratorium, McCain found himself proclaiming “we’re gonna drill offshore!” at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota and offering up a gas-tax holiday solution that would be easy-to grasp for the masses, but short on long-term sustainability.

Even with these new stances, staunch conservatives still really don’t trust McCain, and he can’t win without them. How could he communicate the old Maverick recipe, while also catching the attention of the evangelical, pro-life right?
.time for a brand extension..

Sarah Palin.Diet Coke or New Coke?

By the 1980s Coca-Cola was worried about fighting Pepsi. People loved Pepsi, and Coke’s short-term combat measures were not working. So in 1982, Coke surprised the world by doing the unthinkable..launching a new version of Coke.DIET COKE. The change in packaging/ label and recipe- using Aspartame instead of sugar- appealed to more health-conscious drinkers.

Lord knows it was a risk. Many thought that they would tarnish the “mother-Coke” brand, and that Diet Coke might just not be ready for the soda fountains yet.

Similarly, the choice of Sarah Palin was a shocker to the world. As the first term governor of Alaska, and the former mayor of a town of 9,000 people, she was certainly short on national experience. However, she was a great branding choice for a candidate who hasn’t been able to connect with the far right or women voters. Mrs. Palin is a prototypical pro-life, anti-big government, family values, church-going, anti-evolution, pro-gun, right winger with a strong voice that she developed
at her son’s hockey games at PTA meetings. Throughout the RNC, we were continually reminded about the size of her family (as they were paraded on stage), and we (meaning steel-workers in Pennsylvania) were told again and again that her husband is a union member.

And maybe most importantly, she is strong-willed, a self-described pit-bull/woman hybrid that Mr. McCain hopes will be an inspiration to women voters because of her work as a Governor amongst the old boys club and as a mother of five. John McCain’s two day vetting process of Mrs. Palin was either a lesson in gut decision making, or a calculated decision to woo disillusioned Hillary voters with a candidate who shares their chromosomes, but perhaps not all of their ideals. Mrs. Palin wants to abolish abortion in all forms (even for rape victims), and while she says she is for equal pay for equal work, she does not believe that the current 180-day limit for filing complaints should be changed.

If nothing else, the choice of Mrs. Palin as the VP nominee proves Mr. McCain’s marketing cachet. She does however have her shortcomings. Leaving her lack of experience for another discussion, she believes that the “jury is still out” on global warming, as her state literally melts into the Pacific. More significantly, her claims that she derides all forms of frivolous government spending may not exactly be founded in reality. In her RNC acceptance speech, she forcefully proclaimed “I told Congress ‘thanks, but no thanks’ for that bridge to nowhere,” referring to a bridge to be built from Ketchikan to Gravina Island using federal government funds.

That is a great marketing slogan, but in her gubernatorial campaign in 2006 she supported the $223 million earmark for the bridge and only disapproved of the project after the “members in good standing in Washington” that she mentioned at the RNC (including John McCain) began to express strong disapproval of the project and it became clear that it would not be fully funded. She was even consuming pork as a small town mayor, accepting $27 million in earmarks for city projects using a lobbying firm, Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh.

Sarah Palin is a strong woman and right-wing archetype, with a thin resume and some clear contradictions between her reformer message and her actual record. But will it work anyway? In the Cola wars, Diet Coke, went on to become the most successful consumer launch of the 80’s, and the third largest selling carbonated soft-drink, despite the young and hip new Pepsi image.

But sometimes the mass market decides not to drink the re-branded cool-aid. New Coke, launched in 1985, was an utter failure and caused a national uproar amongst diehard Coca-Cola drinkers. Will neo-conservatives make their choice based on the bottom of the ticket? Will disgruntled Hillary voters substitute one woman for another, and ignore their relative accomplishments? Will Independents who may have supported John McCain eight years ago be distracted enough by the heat of the moment that they forget to ask “what happened to the old John McCain?”

In the end, who knows? But one thing is for sure. Selecting a woman like Sarah Palin to be your running mate in this election year has little to do with politics.

It is just damned good marketing.