Trump vs. Oprah: How Important is Brand in the Next US election?

At the recent Golden Globes Awards in Hollywood, the women in attendance mostly wore black as a sign of protest, in solidarity with the #MeToo movement that has roiled the entertainment industry. Many men also wore black…although not to be cynical, but most tuxedo-wearing men are usually in black anyway.

To be clear: Fashion, in all its red carpet glory was on display. It wasn’t a coordinated, ‘Let’s all go to J Crew or Gap and buy black shifts’. However, the seed was planted, and the message communicated.

Needless to say, any effort of this sort (and particularly one from an audience often considered out of touch with the mainstream) is wide open for criticism, and there was plenty. I leave it to you to follow the links, if you didn’t watch it, and decide if you think that the issue was mentioned enough, at all, or too much.

What interests me most, and what got the biggest response though, was Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech. Oprah (as she is known) was the first African American woman to be awarded the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. And like many who receive such awards, she used the pulpit to make a powerful statement.

Within seconds as she spoke, Oprah for President Tweets began appearing. Some say a campaign began. True or not, many people were excited (my wife included) about a potential campaign, with even President Trump weighing in fairly graciously, saying “Oprah would be a lot of fun.”

Now, we all know how social media works: The Tweets themselves are never as far-reaching or impactful as the media pickup…and there was pick up. Lots of it, all over the world.

My interest is not the fashion statement, the powerful speech, or to be fair, the entire event. What held my attention is the morning after, when the pundits and analysts began their commentary on Oprah as a candidate. Could she win? Was she capable? And most interesting was the notion by some liberal writers, who you’d think might’ve supported the notion of her candidacy, begging her not to declare, and deploring the celebrity cult candidates.

Let me be clear: What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.

To begin with, celebrity candidacy is not new… in fact, I’d argue it’s as old as democracy. Caesar was a celebrity candidate back in the day, and being a conquering hero was no guarantee that you could keep streets and sewers of Rome clean and the Empire humming. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were an early sign of the power of telegenic status, and some say the sweat and five-o’clock shadow killed Richard Nixon’s chance to be elected that time around. And Ronald Regan’s celebrity is obvious.

Not so obvious was President Jimmy Carter. But for those who remember, he was all PR, carrying empty garment bags and wearing sweaters on TV. Clinton used celebrities better than anyone before, and became one… and Obama was a great student as well.

That’s not to say they weren’t competent, or even extraordinary, to many. But they became Celebrity Brands and used that fact to its utmost. Just fact.

BAV, Brand Asset Valuator is the proprietary Brand Data Base created by Young&Rubicam. (Full disclosure, I am the CEO of Y&R.) Y&R's proprietary BrandAsset®Valuator (BAV) is the world’s leading (and largest) quantitative study and modeler of brands and consumers. A database and model that is 56,000 brands across 75 metrics, 51 countries and more than 1.5 million respondents, created some 25 years ago. Over 9 billion databites of brand data have been collected.

The importance of measuring people as brands, including politicians, became important to us when Mitt Romney was a candidate for President in the US. We used our study to make some informed analytical judgements about his personal Brand that suggested his eventual election loss.

And we used the same methodology and database to strongly submit that the pollsters were wrong in so confidently predicting the inevitable victory of Hillary Clinton. We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.

The BAV Brand Study is not a polling beauty contest, nor does it hold emotional bias. We measure everything and everybody in the same way, building a database of attributes that can be analyzed in ways that polls cannot.

So we took a look at Oprah in order to get in on the conversation in its earliest phase. And here is what we see Day One. Save this, as we will report periodically if she does decide to run.

Oprah is a powerful Brand. She has esteem and stature, and she has more brand strength and power than anybody else in the field except for former President Obama and President Trump. And Trump still leads the Brand pack (remember, this is not a poll).

Republicans do not like Oprah although they find her more innovative and authentic than any Republican possible candidate…except for the President, who is still seen as more straightforward and trustworthy than anyone. What she does lack for this electorate is approachability: The overwhelming majority see her as not approachable at all.

Democrats obviously have a more positive view of her, and in fact see her as being more capable than Obama. Yet the most interesting finding is that she’s probably the most broadly leverageable candidate in that she is considered to be one of the most intelligent and visionary brands across our culture.

Yet Oprah’s biggest issue is relevance, which is the key to brand strength together with differentiation. She is well-known and highly regarded even by her opponents, and she is differentiated for sure. But even her fans aren’t sure of her relevance to them, particularly in this arena.

Politico, in a recent article on Oprah’s potential to run, said:

“From the start, the former talk show host has skillfully walked the tightrope between political advocacy (as a reliable Democratic donor and vocal Obama booster) and political engagement. But running for office would mean staking out political ground, and potentially alienating people on the other side of the fence, which is not exactly part of the universalist Oprah brand. Winfrey has consistently placed herself just close enough to the political fray to exert her gravity on it, but not close enough to be burned by its heat—a privileged status a presidential campaign would sorely test, not least of all a contest against a brawler like Trump.”

So there you have it.

What is the universalist Oprah brand and does it have the breadth to stretch itself to deeper relevance? If so, will there be, as she said, ”a new day on the horizon”?

We will be following this closely and commenting from time to time as appropriate.

And, don’t forget, brands are only as other people see them.


“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time."

-- Abraham Lincoln

We’ve got a lot of one days at a time to go until the next U.S. election. Stay tuned.

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