THE BLOG

Musings on Debates and Brands in the Early Morning

06/11/2012 16:29 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

As we enter the final stages of what has been an absorbing and at times perplexing presidential election I find myself thinking about the ebb and flow of the various debates. The one that still sticks in my mind above all others was Biden v Ryan which gained critical importance considering the performance of President Obama in his first encounter with Mitt Romney.

I was in a hotel room in Kiev a few weeks ago. As usual when travelling on business, I was finding it difficult to sleep - just couldn't get my conference speech for the following day out of my head. So I decided to switch on the TV, go to CNN and see if the vice presidential debate had started.

I'd only a missed a few minutes and it was clear as the debate unfolded that both candidates were laying it on the line. Biden was animated and impassioned whilst Ryan exuded conviction and a quiet sense of authority. Facts and figures were flowing both ways and each candidate seemed to have done their homework - like two boxers they jabbed at each other and the odd shot got through. But it was clear that there was unlikely to be a knockout blow unless a self inflicted gaffe provided the opportunity.

However in the back of my mind it was dawning on me that Ryan was gradually gaining the edge. Biden's strategy to reinvigorate the Democratic campaign with emotion and vim was the right one but was indirectly contributing to an aura of solidity and calm around his opponent. Ryan was not flustered or rattled by Biden's attacks and seemed to be taking everything in his stride.

By three quarters of the way though this absorbing exchange I felt that I was seeing the real thing in terms of electoral debates. Yes both participants had been prepared and coached for the occasion but they were also coming across as genuine individuals. I felt they were being honest and candid in the things they said. There was certainly conviction but more importantly there was also authenticity - as sense that they genuinely tried to live by the principles they articulated.

I found myself momentarily thinking that in many ways this is what great brands are all about - you just know they mean what they say. So whether it's John Lewis or Nordstrom there is a sense that they are always trying to deliver on the promises they make. It struck me that this is what gives a brand or indeed a politician cut through in an information overloaded world. People are bombarded with messages but what they are actually looking for is meaning - something that adds up and resonates with their own values and beliefs.

In fact I started (and perhaps this is a reflection of the fact it now past four in the morning!) thinking of a dinner party where the people attending were like different types of organisations. There would be the loud bore in the centre of the room - repeating well worn mantras and listening to no-one - rather like the company that spends millions on global advertising but zero on real dialogue with its stakeholders.

Then, there in the corner, is the self conscious introvert who looks nervously around and is always trying to blend in - similar in outlook to those companies that don't have a clear set of beliefs or values and bolt messages together from wherever they can find them.

Finally you come across someone who is a good listener but also has interesting things to say - you intuitively feel they can be trusted and after just ten minutes conversation, you start to think of them as a friend. In other words the company that understands itself, what it has to offer and how that ties in with the things you consider to be important.

I went on to think that, in many respects, that kind of authenticity is akin to corporate gold dust - without it a corporate advertising campaign will have marginal impact because if you don't believe the author means the message, then why on earth should you bother to listen? How many millions of dollars are wasted every year because an organisation hasn't asked itself some fundamental questions before creating a campaign - do we mean this and do others think we do too?

Anyway as the debate entered its final stages I had Ryan ahead. He hadn't been perfect or landed any significant blows on Biden but he had come across as calm, knowledgeable and genuine. He wasn't trying to overwhelm Biden - he wasn't trying to sell himself too hard. He was simply putting forward a set of clear points in a clear and concise way.

Then as the debate was coming to an end it was time for personal statements. Biden finished in the same manner as he had begun - a little bit calmer but still his sincerity securely in place. However when it came to Ryan's turn he managed to nullify his lead in a few seconds. He woodenly turned to face the camera head on and started to articulate what felt like a script from a TV ad. For a few seconds the man had become the party machine and a clear win had become a draw and an opportunity lost.

As I started to feel drowsy my thoughts were drawn back to the corporate world. It does seem so easy for many organisations to default to corporate speak - presumably because it acts as a kind of security blanket in what seems to be an increasingly hostile world.

But then I thought if the words have no meaning why bother to speak in the first place?