Posts tagged “Politics

Jesus, Critical Race Theory, and American Exceptionalism

American Flag

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I ran through several titles for this post. This is what I ended up with. 

It is not quite as provocative as a bunch of others I thought about using, like “Jesus would support critical race theory and oppose American exceptionalism.” But I figured that titles along those lines would be presumptive, preachy to the point of arrogance and bombast. Lord knows we have enough of all of that. So I settled on something a bit less argumentative.

But here’s the nub of the issue. Critical race theory (CRT), which has been around for decades and never raised much fuss, has all a sudden set conservatives in an uproar. The Heritage Institute claims that “when followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based.” Evangelical pastors and their churches have also been set ablaze. In pulpits and bylines across America, they are supporting states efforts to ban mention of CRT in public education.  Scholars and theologians from the Southern Baptist Convention claim that CRT is “unbiblical” and inconsistent with Christianity. Others have called it “something of a Christian heresy.”

So what exactly is CRT? If you listen to a lot of conservatives or evangelicals you’d think it is the coming of the anti-Christ – a humanist theology seeking to replace Judeo Christian values. But that’s not the case. In one of the most informed and balanced pieces I’ve read on CRT,  Education Week’s associate editor, Steve Sawchuck, describes CRT this way:

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

That’s it. Racism creeps into legal systems and policies. This is a surprise?

No, CRT is not some Marxist plot or Satanic plot. CRT is more of a description, of what is than a prescription of what to do about it. CRT merely says that racism goes beyond individuals and eventually becomes systemic. That because people construct societies, and because in the process of constructing those societies people bring with them their individual biases and prejudices, these biases and prejudices infect and shape the institutions the societies create.

Makes perfect sense to me.

It also strikes me as consistent with what I know Jesus taught. Let’s start with the concept of sin and racism. 

Man’s sinful nature isn’t a new concept. It has been a central theme of Christian theology since – well – since the beginning. St. Paul. Augustine. Martin Luther. Calvin. All saw Jesus as the means to escape an inherently grim human condition. By the time this got to Calvin, he went so far as to describe our condition as that of “total depravity.” 

My read of scripture doesn’t go that far. The total depravity part. But I find the concept of “sin” and “sinner” experientially relevant. That is, I see it (sin) in myself and others. And our recognition and repentance of what constitutes these bad thoughts and behaviors – are central to Jesus’ teaching. 

When I was growing up in church, I was encouraged to publicly confess not only that I am a sinner but that my “sin” thing was largely an uncurable condition. I should seek God’s help and guidance to overcome it, but I’m sorta stuck with it. Sin, that is. And I did so because deep inside me I know that was a pretty good description of me and folks around me – even those that I admired. But Jesus provides hope because as Paul wrote, “while we were yet sinners” he sacrificed his life for ours.

So here’s the question: If Christians are ok with standing up and saying “I’m a sinner” why do they freak out when someone asks them to confess “I’m a racist”? Surely racism falls into the “sin” bucket. What makes it so hard for Christians to accept the reality of our own prejudice?

I think beneath the religious panic is political mythology.

Could it be that the real reason over the freak out of CRT is that it punctures the balloon of American exceptionalism. That CRT somehow makes Americans and American history look bad. That it is unpatriotic. It doesn’t quite fit into Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” Bible!

Any (good) student of U.S. history knows that Americans’ self-perceived “exceptionalism” has been part of our story since the colonies. It has been linked to our Puritan or Christian “specialness.” Winthrop had his “City on a Hill.” Jacksonian Democrats and Teddy Roosevelt had John O’Sullivan’s Christian-based Manifest Destiny. Ronald Reagan claimed America as “set aside as a promised land.”

America is exceptional. Perhaps by extension, God has a special thing for the U.S.A.

Here’s the problem. I’m not sure Jesus would agree with this either. 

Whatever happened to “red, and yellow, black, and white … they are precious in his sight”? It wasn’t just the American children that Jesus loved. As I remember it, it was the “children of the world.” It’s a big world out there.

Sadly, throughout American history, legitimate pride and patriotism have often fallen prey to nativism, imperialism and … you got it! … a sense of (white) American superiority. Sometimes it was even Christian superiority. Sometimes it was even the superiority of some types of Christianity (Protestantism) over other types of Christianity (Catholics). Not sure how aligns with Jesus’ views on the beauty of humility and the ugliness of pride. Humble was high on the “blessed” list in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last I read in the books of Matthew and Luke, exceptionalism didn’t make the cut.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. 

It was the story of two people praying. The Pharisee was in the front of the church and thought pretty highly of himself. His prayer was – literally –  God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” He went on to say that he was especially thankful that God made him better than the scum tax collector in the back of the room. Sorta sounds a lot like exceptionalism to me. A bit like “I’m thankful God, you made me an American and not one of those awful socialist wussy Danish or Swedish types. 

Jesus wasn’t too happy with the Pharisee. Rather, Jesus sided with the tax collector – the guy in the back of the room who didn’t claim to be better than anyone. He simply asked God “to have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

[Sidenote: I also think that Jesus would likely challenge anyone who makes the claim that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “they don’t have a racist bone in their body.” I do. You do. They do. We just need to deal with it.]

Finally, let’s put Jesus and Christian theology to the side for a moment, and just talk about American history. Facts. Truth. Stuff that actually happened.

I don’t want to pick on any one state but I find it ironic (that’s the nicest word I can come up with) that one of the biggest opponents of CRT is Senator Cotton from Arkansas. Arkansas is the state where in 1957, following the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the Governor of the state infamously called out the National Guard to maintain segregation of white students from black students in public schools. 

That policy – the segregation of white and black communities – had been in place in the state of Arkansas and much of the nation for over 60 years or since Reconstruction. It was state law. It was institutionalized racism. Systemic racism. Whatever the label, racism was the rule of law. Add to that the fact that the state of Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836 precisely because it was a “slave” state. Its admission as the 25th state was meant to preserve the balance of slave vs. free states in the Union. By my math that means that Arkansas has been a state for approximately 185 years, and for approximately two-thirds of its history it was either a slave state or a segregationist state.

Are we to simply ignore the two-thirds of Arkansas’ history? Pretend that race wasn’t an issue? Pretend that race still isn’t an issue? In Arkansas and every other state in the Union?

CRT is a theory. It is not a religion, it is not a government, it is not a way of life. It is just a theory “which dates back to the 1970s, [and] holds that racism is systemic and embedded in policies rather than just perpetuated by bigoted people, creating barriers for people of color in myriad spheres of life.”

Makes sense to me. It is not a radical concept.

It is historically accurate and, based on my read of the Bible, quite in keeping with what Jesus and his disciples taught.

Today I Prayed.

Church and faith

I went to church to worship today and I prayed.  I prayed for my family. Praying for my family is pretty much a given every day, not just on Sunday. I prayed for the nation. I do that a lot too but not nearly as often.  I prayed for many, many other people and things.

And yes, I prayed for the president-elect. It was an earnest prayer. It was a difficult prayer. It was an open prayer. It was as much about asking God what all this means as it was what I should do about it.

I prayed that the president-elect would not govern the same way he campaigned.

I prayed that, if God was willing, the president-elect would reconsider some of the actions he said he would pursue. Things like. Building the wall. Burning more coal. A travel ban on Muslims. Eliminating access to affordable health insurance. Increasing tax breaks for the affluent.

But most of all I prayed that everyone, particularly the young people out there, would, despite what they may have read and seen regarding Mr. Trump’s supporters, not confuse Republican policies with Jesus’ teachings.

I prayed that people would read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8). I prayed that everyone would know that Jesus taught …

  • That we shouldn’t get all caught up on how much taxes we pay. That God wants us to deal with more important things.  That we should “render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s” and then focus on rendering unto God what is God’s.
  • That the love of money and material things are the thorns that stifle God’s word and choke out the work of the Holy Spirit.  That the love of money is the root of all types of evil. That we should not try to store up treasures on earth, but rather treasures in heaven.
  • That we should love our neighbors and that God wants us to define “neighbors” as Samaritan types (modern-day Muslims?) who worship a different God, believe different things, worship a different way, and are suspect and despised by society.
  • That our focus should be on doing whatever we can to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, minister to the sick (like healthcare), and care for the widows and orphans (even if they come from Syria).
  • That we should not only love our enemies but when folks ask for a shirt, we give them our coat.
  • That the people who are right before God are not the pious religious folks who wear their faith on their sleeves and show up on talk shows and news programs … rather they are the repentant sinners who sit in the back pew, often neglected, begging for God’s mercy. That the truly blessed are people who are humble, meek and poor in spirit.
  • That we should be wary of false prophets who show up saying that they speak in Jesus’ name. That we would know these false prophets by their fruits of their work … the mercy, grace, and sacrifice that they make for others.

Overall, I prayed that people judge Christian practice by the sayings of Jesus, and not the circumstances of an election.

I prayed that people would know that this is what he was talking about when he said that if we follow his commands, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

And with that, I said “Amen.”

May God’s will be done.

Explaining Trump

Donald Trump

I’ve tried hard not to write this. The one thing this world may need least, is yet another article on Donald J. Trump. I go to work and there’s Trump.  I drive home and I listen to the radio and it is all about Trump. I go home and turn on TV and there’s Trump. I go on vacation to the places FAR away from Washington DC and there he is – TRUMP!  I confess to Trump exhaustion. He follows me everywhere. My wife and I can’t even talk about it.

So consider this a catharsis. A Trump exorcism. A purge. You may not agree with anything that follows. And if you don’t please don’t be angry with me. Know that I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable and somehow understand the unfathomable. No, I’m not talking about the origins of creation and the existence of God. I’m talking about the small, remote and horrifying chance of Donald J. Trump becoming president of the United States.

So let’s get started. How do we explain what is happening to us?

I would suggest starting with one of the best articles I’ve read to date on this phenomenon – a piece by David Gergen. It is about narcissism and leadership. It is very well written and well researched. I think starting with narcissism is a good and appropriate place when trying to understand and explain the Trump phenomenon. I would only add that while there’s a historical nexus between narcissism and leadership, there’s a human nexus as well. We all have our inner Trump. We all have our “Hey, look at me!” “Hey, ain’t I great!” “Hey, if you gave me that problem I’d fix it so fast it would make your head spin!”

So with our own “inner Trump” in mind, lesson one (and perhaps the most controversial).  Personableness can get you far.

I understand if you might take issue with the premise that Donald Trump is “personable.” How can you label as “personable” someone who calls immigrants “rapists” and liberal women that he doesn’t like “fat” “ugly” and “stupid”? And then there’s Megyn Kelly.

But notice how Trump will, in the same breath, match every critique with a back slap.

Jeb Bush is “weak”, “low energy”, and “a puppet”. Bush is also a “good guy”, “wonderful man”, “I like him.”

Illegal aliens are “rapists”, “thugs” and “thieves”. Oh, but “I love Mexicans and the Mexican people.”

China is “sucking us dry” and at the same time “I love them too … they stay in my hotels!”

Perhaps the only thing that both friends and enemies agree on about Trump is that when you are dealing with him individually he is a very “genial” guy. At a personal level, “the Donald” is engaging, witty, and yes, even generous. Beneath his braggadocio is a certain folksy personableness.

This trait can get you far. And it isn’t new.

A lot of people loved the folksy, genial, Ronald Reagan even as he was vilifying impoverished mothers as “welfare queens” and ripping solar panels off the roof of the White House. Reagan was about the most anti-union president we’d had, yet he won the labor vote.  Why? Perhaps one reason is that he seemed so personable.

Second, Trump underscores the societal focus on the inflated self.  He is a logical outworking of our diminished appreciation of moderation, modesty and humility.  All three qualities were once considered attributes of character and virtue.  They were things we exalted. The strong, silent, self-effacing hero. Those days seem far away.  We have traded our John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods for the fast-talking, wise-cracking, over-the-top and modestly vulgar.

To be sure we have always had gadflies and the delightful fringe. We’ve seen value in the quirky and those on the outside who dared speak “truth to power.”

But we have eviscerated the moderate middle. In politics, we voted out moderates like Dick Lugar and Mary Landrieu. The moderate elected officials who had been successful – folks like Evan Bayh and Mitch Daniels – have simply walked away rightly figuring there are better things to do with their time than try and fiddle with the mess that is the American polity.

We have penalized the thoughtful and heaped praise on the cock-sure. When we vilify compromise, make all politics personal, and chase away the majority of people who have a real spirit of public service, what we get is Donald J. Trump.

Finally, Trump shows us the sad dysfunction of news media.

I have friends both inside and outside of the news media and if you get them alone for a moment, most agree. The news media is dying.  Or if not dying it is morphing into something unrecognizable. It is adrift, either caught up in its own pursuit of a political agenda (Fox vs. MSNBC), chasing the latest tweet, or simply devoid of a filter of decency and decorum.

It is good that years ago they built something called a Newseum. At least you can still find good journalism somewhere.  Trump is an avatar to the news media’s desperation for a story. He is a testament to its waning capability to challenge the inaccurate or absurd. What we see today is much worse than the yellow journalism of Hearst or the liberal bias of Cronkite and his cronies. It goes beyond the traditional “if it bleeds it leads” problem. It is a news media that is rubber necking in unimaginable proportions. And we are forced to watch.

According to legend, Joseph de Maistre once coined the phrase “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Perhaps. And perhaps that is the frightening reality that we have to face when we try to explain the current popularity of Trump.

A small footnote. De Maistre was no fan of democracy. He worked for Russian Czar Alexandar I. He believed hereditary monarchies were divinely sanctioned. He viewed constitutional government as beyond the capabilities of the average Russian.

If alive today, he’d probably be voting for Trump.

 

image of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

Because

JJuice cause

If you have raised a child there is an encounter you are sure to have dealt with. It is the incessantly curious moment.

It is that exchange where every statement you make is met with, “Why?” And after which, each subsequent explanation is met with another, “Why?” And so on. Why? Why? Why?

At some point the exasperated parent blurts out the one word to end all conversation:

“Because!”

“Because.” It is an interesting word. The verb “to be” combined with the verb “to cause”. Or as the old French roots would describe: “by reason of.”

“Because!”

I spend much of my professional life trying to figure out the “because” of things, specifically, the “because” of human thinking and behavior … the “becauses” of thinking a certain way, voting a certain way, giving to a certain institution, joining a certain, dare I say, “cause.”

One thing you quickly discover. Correlation is not cause. It is easy to determine correlation. That is, being able to show that if “this” happens it is very likely “that” will happen around the same time. This is most of the research you see. We sift through the numbers and we see correlations between one phenomenon and another. We even ascribe percentages to it. When this occurs or we take action “A”, then 12% of the time they open the email. But when we do something else and take action “B”, then 16% of the time they open the email. So we show correlation. But was the different action “B” the “be” “cause” of the 4% difference? It is very hard to know.

A long time ago there was a guy named Aristotle. He came up with four ways to think about or look at “causes.” A couple thousand years later, Aristotle’s approach still has value when we think about identifying “cause” in politics, marketing, and social change.

First, there is the material cause. This was the cause determined by the “material that composes the moving or changing of things.” This is the easiest of “causes” to observe and perhaps the most simplistic. It is also the least meaningful. A window broke because a rock went through it. Broken window. Cause = rock. A car engine quit because it ran out of gas. Immobile car. Cause = no gas.

You could say they “caused” the window to break and the car to stop. But were simply materials. They don’t “do” anything. They just enabled something.

It is exactly the same when we ascribe societal or behavior change as the result of a device (iPhone) or an app (GoogleMaps) or a service (Amazon). We say these things are change agents. To be sure change has happened “because” of these things. But they are only a material cause and only give a shallow answer to the “be” “cause” of change.

Second, Aristotle spoke of a “formal” cause. The formal cause results from the arrangement of things. Good examples are the harmonic of a particular musical scale that produces a pleasant sound or the algebraic formula that “causes” an arch to support weight.

Now this gets a bit more interesting. We see it in everyday life. We pay a lot of attention to the “position” of a product or service, whether it is in the supermarket or on a Google search page. Why? Because the “formal cause” or arrangement of things changes an outcome. If you’re selling something you want it to be at the end of the aisle. We pay to have our search term higher up on a page. Yes, these marketing formulas for change work, however often we’re not exactly sure why.

Let’s go further.

Third is Aristotle’s “efficient” cause. This was the cause prompted by a person or change agent. The artist Michaelangelo was the “efficient cause” of the Pieta. You might even say that Hitler was the “efficient cause” of World War II.

Again, we see parallels in assessing the “be” “cause” of developments in business and politics. Einstein. Edison. Jeff Bezos. Elong Musk. Barak Obama. We ascribe to them all manner of causes and changes in politics, society and business. Efficient cause goes beyond substance (the rock or gallon of gasoline), beyond form (the harmonic or equation) to the person or persons who were able to imagine and effectuate change.

Applied to everyday communications, the efficient “cause” are the influencers, the early adopters, the activists, networks and communities that can either make something relevant or irrelevant. So we identify the change agents and chase after them.

Finally there is Aristotle’s – well – “final” cause. This was the ultimate cause. It was and remains the most controversial. It is the cause that is determined by the intrinsic purpose and nature of a particular thing, event or being. As described (in Wikipedia!) it is the cause prompted by “the purpose for which things became.”

Now that’s a phrase to chew on.

Finding the “final” cause of things is the most difficult (and dangerous) but not surprisingly it is the one I find most fun and rewarding. It is finding the “be” “cause” of thinking and action that is due to the intrinsic nature of a person’s being and doing. We talk about it at our agency as the relevant cause. It is looking at things through the eyes, hearts and minds of people and trying to make sense out of the “why” of their attitudes and behavior. And while there, to sift through all the complexity and find out those relevant cause(s) for action.

So the conversation with the little child never ends. After every statement, phenomenon, action, event, or campaign comes the inevitable question: “why?” If we can answer the “why” and find the (be) cause behind those things, we are wiser and can make better decisions about things in the future.

Why?

Well … because!

I am not a scientist.

Earth creative commons
My wife said something profound yesterday. She does that a lot, actually. She’s a therapist. She has a knack for human insight.

We were in our typical morning routine, propped up in bed with our iPads reading the news and checking Facebook. Staring at her iPad Sanderijn said, “Isn’t it strange that every time people ask one of the Republican candidates for president about climate change they answer ‘I don’t know … I am not a scientist.'”

She went on, “Why is it climate change is the one thing they feel they are not qualified to have an opinion on?” She thoughtfully added that these guys don’t seem to respond similarly when asked about other areas of policy.

Which got me thinking. Imagine a presidential candidate who says …

I don’t know about education policy because I am not a teacher.

I don’t know about foreign policy because I am not a diplomat.

I don’t know about military intervention because I am not a soldier.

I don’t know about tax policy because I am not a CPA.

I don’t know about crime and punishment because I am neither a policeman nor a judge.

I don’t know about health care policy because I am not a doctor.

I don’t know about moral values because I am not clergy. (ok, Mike Huckabee maybe but that’s whole different story).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if candidates showed the same humility on other policy issues that some candidates are showing on climate change?

Oh, and by the way, 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

 

Earth Day Image is used under CC 2.0

When Good Isn’t Good Enough

The history of brands is littered with good — sometimes even great — products that failed.  Can you spell (or remember) Betamax?

A recent case in point can be found in the litter of the aftermath of what many seem as the most colorful political primaries in record.  Amidst scandal, write-ins, and Tea Party surprises there was the DC mayoral race.  A race lost by incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Mayor Fenty.  Young.  Smart.  Aggressive.

And effective.

By any objective standard he was a good mayor (and we’ve not had many in the three decades I’ve been here!).

He inherited a budget mess, and fixed it.  He said he would take over the city’s schools and make them work.  And he did!  He reduced crime, kept spending in check, modernized city services, and boosted private investments.

And he lost.

Why?
There were some immediate issues.  He addressed the budget by cutting jobs and fixed the schools by laying off teachers.  Not very popular in a city with a high unemployment rate.  But the real reasons were at the same time ephemeral and substantive.  It was a question of attitude.
Fenty’s intensity and intellect often led to arrogance.  His doggedness sometimes became insular.  His purity could be strident.
In the end, his base deserted him.  And he lost.
There are plenty of brand lessons in Mayor Fenty’s fall from grace.
One being that just because you’re ‘good’ doesn’t mean you’re ‘good enough’ for the next choice or purchase.  Substance matters.  But substance isn’t everything.  You can be ‘right’ and still have your customers think you are ‘wrong’.
Remember the advocates, supporters, purchasers, and fans that got you where you are.  Be nice to them.  Maybe even listen.  Ok, at least pretend to listen.  Don’t expect that they’ll follow and support you just because you think you’re doing the right thing … just because you’re so … good.
Just being good isn’t good enough.

Glittering Generalities

Watching the news this morning from one of my favorite ‘hidden gem’ hotels – The CharlesMark in Boston (Back Bay).  I stumbled across an interview with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  I liked her.  Seemed like a genuinely smart person and skilled operator.  And she’s been working hard making the rounds this days as educations reform and charter schools take the spotlight with the new documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

But I was unimpressed with her work this morning.  The exchange went something like this:

Reporter:  “But isn’t there a real problem with teachers who don’t have the skills or drive or ability to teach our children yet they continue in the classroom year after year?

AFT president:  “No one wants bad teachers in the classroom.  We don’t want that.  We’re not for that.  We’re against that.  But that’s not the real problem.  The real problem is getting everyone together.  We all have to address this educational challenge we face together.  We need to bring everyone to the table.  All parties have to work together to address this collectively … to do it together …”.

Blah, blah, blah.

She punted on recognizing the reality of the problem – bad teachers in the classroom.  And if you can’t step up and admit that a problem exists, how can you formulate a way of solving it?  She might as well have said, “If we can all just hold hands and sing the Coca Cola song …”

Then I read about the GOP’s “Pledge to America”.

We’re for families.  We honor the constitution.  We hate deficits (as well as the government we long to take control over).  We support our troops.  We believe in a strong America.  We hate terrorists.  And we are not fans of illegal immigrants.  We love America.  We love America a lot.

So what exactly to we do?  Not so much.

My fifth grade teacher used to term all this “glittering generalities.”  Kumbya on the left … Kumbya on the right.

I don’t know about you but the kumbya talk doesn’t work much in my world.

My mortgage company wants the check.  My clients want me to show them how much stuff I helped them sell.  The folks in the class I teach expect to learn something.  My wife expects me to fix the garbage disposal.  The people in my world want specifics.  They want tangibles.  They expect problems to be confronted and addressed.  You don’t even have to solve them all the time.  But if you show that you acknowledge it and doing everything you can to fix it, people will often give you the benefit of the doubt.

Does straight talk make a company or brand stronger?  I think so.  We can all cite popular brands that don’t.  But my experience is that if you dabble in glittering generalities long enough, the real problems catch up with you.

Not only that …

You become boring as hell.

Brand personality and brand Obama

Let’s see.  Eighteen months ago President Obama’s public approval ratings are through the roof.  Today, not so much.

What happened?

Others have written about policy, the economy, and the politics of it all.  I wonder about how all that can be viewed from the perspective of brand.  So I combed through the files and pulled up a structure from our friends at Leo Burnette.

Burnette’s brand structure is simple.  There are three components:  brand personality, brand promise, and brand essence.  The brand personality is the part that helps a person ‘relate’ to the brand.  That is, it is what led to those hideous questions in focus groups like, “if Dove soap were a famous person, what type of famous person would that be?”

Then there’s the brand promise.  The brand promise is the value statement.  Ir addresses the specific thing that the brand will do for you.  It is the ‘what is in it for me’  part of the brand.  Most often this is captured in the tagline.  I buy a BMW and I get the ultimate driving machine.  I buy Panasonic and I am one a step ahead.  I drink a Coke and get the real thing.

And yes.  Most brands don’t actually keep their promises.

Finally there is brand essence.  That is the emotional thing.  It is the Disney magic.  It is the Nieman Marcus return policy.  The service at a Ritz Carlton.  The reliability of a Honda.  This is the hardest one to pull off because it is supposed what people ‘feel’ when they interact with the brand.

Let’s apply them to brand Obama.  First, the brand promise.  It is a good place to start because, by definition, a political figure’s brand promise is not going to appeal to everyone.  It is the reason we have Republicans and Democrats.  Delivering on his brand promise — which President Obama reminds people that he is doing — is not just something people won’t relate to (a common problem among package and service brands) but is something that Republicans will hate.

Now let’s go to the brand personality.  Seems that the Obama brand personality seems to be rubbing Democrats the wrong way.  What once was the everyman presidency is now being seen by many liberal Democratic activists as effete, elitist, and arrogant.

Which leave us with the brand essence.  The emotional element.  And there the brand Obama has serious competitive and circumstantial challenges.  It is hard to keep excitement about “hope” when employment flirts with double digits and every morning you click on the Dow Jones to see if your retirement fund is still there.  (Not that any President can do much about it …)

My read is that it is the brand personality that has suffered most and is the key to brand Obama’s revival.  The President can’t change who he is – a Democrat – and therefore the promise is set.  Nor can the President do much to change the macro picture of two wars and an economy that daily veers drunkenly on the knife’s edge of a cataclysmic abyss.

But by most people’s read, there is work to be done on how people relate to him as a person.  The personality of his brand that was built on a certain populism.  An appeal to a ‘higher calling’.  It wasn’t divisive or bitter.  It was both reasonable and aspirational.

Not an easy thing to do when folks are calling into question just about everything in your life — from where you were born to your faith.

More human and political insight from my therapist

Let me be clear.  I’m not in therapy.

Maybe I should be.  Nothing wrong with it.  Just not for me right now.

By “my therapist” I refer to my beloved and longsuffering wife the social worker and therapist who explained to me and for all of us the real story behind the Tiger Woods ‘apology’.

obama-carex-inset-communityRecently she enlightened me on another recent event – the President’s health care reform summit.

Did you see it?  Any of it?  I found it fascinating and apparently others did as well.  There was so much interest that it crashed some of the sites that were carrying it live.

If you did see it you may remember the opening by President Obama and his desire to focus on the positive things they can agree on.

Focus on the positive.  Talk about things upon which we all can agree.

It went down hill from there.  Apparently the one thing they couldn’t agree on was to focus on what they agreed on.  What they did seem to agree on was sniping, digs, invectives, and occasional ad hominems – typical political talking points.

As my wife explained it, this was (like the Tiger episode) therapy in motion.  Again, let me paraphrase:

It looked like some of the first sessions you have when you are working with dysfunctional families, spouses, or parents with their children.  You always start with asking them to identify positive things about each other.  It never works.  Never.   Every time they come back with criticisms.   You’re not five minutes into the session and people are screaming at each other, letting loose f-bombs and a host of  “asshole”, “jerk”, “bitch” commentary.  They just have all this pent up anger and hate for each other.  They want — no, they need — to get all that stuff off their chests and on the table for everyone — at least the ‘independent’ therapist — to see.  They can’t help it.  They just have to go negative before they can begin getting to the positive.

The problem with the President is that he didn’t do this sooner and didn’t do it long enough.  You can’t do therapy in one session.  You only get people to move over time, little by little.  You have to wear them down.  If the President had done this twice a week for six months, I bet he’d have gotten folks to open up and talk about those positives.

But like therapy, this stuff takes time.

My therapist!  She’s not only beautiful but absolutely brilliant!

It’s Official! Marketing Trick of the Century is Free Money

The marketing fad of the century.

No, it is not mobile phones.  Not reality television.  Not Paris Hilton or black presidents with funny names.

It isn’t celebrity endorsements or home spun viral videos.

It isn’t social media, it isn’t Twitter or Facebook or any of that other stuff.

It is free money.

Yup, FREE MONEY.  Throw out all those new fangled, technology-laden ideas.  Simply give people FREE MONEY and your product or service will be a sure fired hit.

money-treeThe confirmation of this breakthrough discovery came late last week amidst the craze over the “cash for clunkers” program.

For those not familiar, the cash for clunkers program is a free money program for anyone who finds him or herself stuck with an old gas-guzzling car.  You may have that gas guzzler because you were too stupid to see the coming oil crisis coming and had this fantasy that you’d be able to afford tooling around in a half-ton pickup or an SUV the size of a small school bus.

Or you may have that gas guzzler parked in the driveway simply because it has been 15 years since you bought a new car and you’ve been too cheap to buy a new one.

You see, it really didn’t ‘t matter WHY you have a gas guzzler.  The only qualification for free money is that you HAVE a gas guzzler.  The only criteria is possession, not motivation.

Bingo … you get $4,500.  Everybody loves it.  It was so popular that the government stumbled over itself to dole out even more FREE MONEY once the original free money ran out.

[In fact, I’m thinking of creating a gas guzzler secondary market — I’ll buy up gas guzzlers cheap and resell them for people looking for FREE MONEY.  I’ll sell you a $2,000 gas guzzler and you can turn around and trade it in for a new car and get double that in FREE MONEY.  This is a secret plan so please don’t tell anyone.]

The cash for clunkers is one of a long list of FREE MONEY successes of 2009.

Some five years ago finance companies like CountryWide Mortgage promised people FREE MONEY so they could buy homes they otherwise couldn’t afford.  It was a runaway success in the U.S and abroad.  Those folks at CountryWide couldn’t give away free money fast enough and home sales soared.  Then there was Bernie Madoff.  He promised FREE MONEY to anyone with a savings account.  He gave people FREE MONEY regardless of risk and market conditions.  Bernie was very popular.

But the granddaddy of the FREE MONEY marketing approach has been the U.S. government.  They have bee doling out FREE MONEY for decades for things like agriculture, prescription drugs, military weapons, and all sorts of cheap consumer goods from abroad.  The farmers, drug companies, defense contractors and the Chinese can’t get enough of  it.

Now it is true that CountryWide Mortage eventually went bankrupt.  And Bernie Madoff eventually went to jail.  But the government — God bless the government — the government is like that dog gone Energizer bunny and just keeps going and going and going.

So when you set up your FREE MONEY marketing program, be sure that you’ve figured out how to get the government to watch your back.  There are several strategies that work like tying your FREE MONEY program to something that makes politicians look good (like the cash for clunkers thing).  Oh, and if you’re one of those companies that is “too big to fail” … then the FREE MONEY program is a slam dunk.

So at that next marketing brainstorm meeting, after everyone has trotted out their old-style, fuddy duddy, predictable sales and promotion ideas — iPhone app … Ning site … whacky video contest … blah … blah … blah … blah.

When they turn to you, speak confidently the two secret words of marketing success that we KNOW works in the new millennium.

Free money!