June 10, 2008 -- Business Week -- Marketing


How Will Bill Clinton Manage His Brand

The former President's conduct during the Obama-McCain campaign has strategic importance for his image, legacy, and huge moneymaking ability

Former President Bill Clinton last year earned around $50 million in speaking fees, giving 80% of that to his philanthropic foundation. He once cleared $700,000 in a single weekend delivering three speeches, one of which was by videoconference. The Bill Clinton Show ran in venues last year from Las Vegas to Dubai, as he paraded his increasingly Bono-like persona before industry, political, and investor groups around the world.
That was then. Now, the White House hopes of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) are in tatters. And the former President's reputation and image have been dented by his role in her campaign-after many pundits and analysts blamed him for overreaching in denigrating the electability of Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.). After the South Carolina primary in January, Bill Clinton was criticized for seeming to belittle Obama's win there, comparing it to the 1984 and 1988 primary victories by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Thus, the question facing Bill Clinton is what he should do about his brand to protect his legacy, as well as the moneymaking machine he has come to count on.

Aware of His Crucial Choices

It's not as if the 42nd President is ignorant of the power of branding in politics. At the Promax/BDA promotion conference in New York a year ago, one of his speaking gigs, Clinton said he lost the "battle of branding" to the Republicans during his Administration. "[The Republicans] were brilliant at branding. They said they were about values... Everybody is a values voter, but they got the brand...they said they were against the death tax...God, what a great brand." The former President went on: "I did a disservice to the American people not by putting forth a bad plan, but by not being a better brander, not being able to explain it better."

"He does get it...the Bill-as-a-brand thing," says one longtime friend and adviser of the Clintons who has also worked for corporations on branding strategy. "If it seemed at times on the campaign trail with Hillary that he was getting too down and dirty, too retail, for a former President, it's because he never dreamed Hillary wouldn't get the nomination, so he never thought he'd look bad doing it if she won," said the adviser. It's very difficult to get Clinton campaign aides and those who move in Clinton's circles to talk about their image problem right now on the record.

Bill Clinton is not just a former President, but a huge enterprise in a way that no former U.S. President has touched. The money machine has put more than $100 million into both Clintons' pockets since 2001 and billions of dollars into the William J. Clinton Foundation (some in the form of future commitments from corporations and banks). Its core is the former President's popularity and his ability to engage and command huge audiences at extravagant prices. It is that enterprise that some Democratic strategists say will keep Hillary Clinton from being Obama's running mate. If Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination, she could have stonewalled turning over all files and contribution records of the Clinton Library and Bill Clinton's personal income. But as a running mate, Obama surrogates have argued, it would be too awkward for her to take that stance while Obama is running on a platform of no lobbyists in his campaign and Administration, and total transparency. Speaking fees and library donations paid to Clinton or to the Clinton Library by foreign investment funds and foreign governments are viewed as problematic for Hillary Clinton as a Vice-Presidential candidate.

Never Boring

Still, with so much at stake for Bill Clinton, many longtime Washington political handlers say the former President will find a way to return to form fairly quickly after the demise of Hillary's campaign. "While Bill Clinton has squandered much of his equity this year as a Democratic party leader, he has yet to commit the only great sin in contemporary American culture-being boring," says Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington crisis-management consultant.

Dezenhall also worked in the Reagan White House communications department. "His 'brand' has always been a spectacle, something he has achieved through audacity...I don't see that changing," says Dezenhall.

As far as Bill Clinton's drawing card for speeches, the head of one leading speakers' bureau, who asked not to be identified, said he expected the former President would continue to be in big demand but that he would also work as much for his own image in the next five months as he does for Barack Obama's White House bid. "Bill Clinton is maybe one of the smartest people I have ever met, who has occasional lapses of judgment that make people doubt his brain," said the executive. "But that intelligence also allows him to fix any problem at hand."

Bill Clinton is the chief marketing officer of his own brand. And like any CMO, he will have some crucial strategy decisions to make in the next few weeks. It seems that President Clinton's ability to continue cashing in on his Presidency and brand identity will be very much in his own hands no matter if the U.S. is headed by President Obama or President John McCain.

Bill Clinton's value to his wife's Presidential run is still being debated. A CBS/New York Times survey in March showed that just 44% of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for Hillary because of her husband's presence. In an April Wall Street Journal poll, fewer than half of all voters had a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton, which was lower than in January when he enjoyed an almost 60% favorable rating. A survey by CNN/Opinion Research around the same time showed 53% of Americans viewed the former President favorably, while 43% viewed him unfavorably. These numbers are slightly better than Bill Clinton's 51% favorable and 48% unfavorable ratings at the time he left office.

On Balance, a Liability

A less scientific poll, a snap poll conducted online by New York cable channel NY1, asked Web-site visitors if Bill Clinton was a liability or an asset to Hillary's campaign. "Liability," replied 73%, presumably New Yorkers for the most part.

Just as Hillary Clinton's image and political share price will rise or fall depending on whether Obama wins in November, so Bill Clinton's future to some degree pivots off Obama's. E.J. Dionne, an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post (WPO) and senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says: "Bill Clinton should be a big part of Barack Obama's campaigning through Appalachia, because he knows how to connect with the white voters in that region who harbor doubts about Obama and who voted for [Clinton's] wife in the primary." That script for Clinton could be a path to cleansing his gaffes in the campaign that seemed to offend black voters who had been part of the Clinton base. Bill Clinton's conundrum is this: If he helps Obama win, and is seen as a key surrogate, the former President hands off his leadership of the Democratic Party to a non-Clinton. If Obama loses to McCain, Bill Clinton remains head of the Democratic Party.

One thing the Clintons must achieve, argue some, to steel the Clinton brand, is being seen as not contributing to an Obama loss. "There can be no hint of sour grapes. No spotlight stealing. No looks that say 'I told you so' when Obama inevitably stumbles between now and November," says Eric Hirshberg, creative chief of advertising agency Deutsch LA and the co-creator of a pro-Obama Internet video that has been adopted by the campaign. "If he isn't [seen as supporting Obama 100%], and Obama loses, the Clintons risk becoming the Ralph Nader of 2008, meaning the force that kept the party divided," says Hirshberg.

Bill Clinton's appeal and moneymaking apparatus abroad have long been as high, or higher, than in the U.S. "Bill Clinton has a strong currency across most of Europe and is seen as a very able diplomat, even more so in the light of the 'W' Administrations," says Allyson Stewart-Allen, an American-born marketing strategist living in London and who specializes in marketing U.S. brands in overseas markets. Indeed, given President George W. Bush's lack of popularity abroad, it is doubtful the soon-to-be-former President will challenge Clinton much in the big-money speech-giving sweepstakes in foreign venues. Stewart-Allen expects that Clinton can go back to being the most popular interpreter of American politics and current events for foreign audiences no matter who wins in November.

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