debbie millman

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Not The Party She Planned

the end
Doug Mills/The New York Times

Earlier today, in a crowded airport bookstore in Dallas, Texas, I watched former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton concede to Senator Barack Obama on a hulky, flat screen TV with the sound off and the captions on. As the words slowly snaked along the bottom of the television, I noticed the sync with her voice was slightly off, giving the speech an eerily uneven timbre. With a grim sense of irony I realized this was an uncanny metaphoric coincidence, as I believe that Hillary Clinton’s inability to win the Democratic nomination was due to a profound failure in communication. She was unable to deliver a strong message until it was too late to matter; consequently she could never catch up with a competitor who, though less experienced and equally polarizing, fundamentally understood how to capture the nation’s imagination. Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the Democratic Presidential Nominee because of bad brand management.

Hillary came to the Presidential race with an odd sense of entitlement; she reeked of presumptive Democratic nominee, and this annoyed a plethora of primary voters. It seemed that once she finally made the decision to run for office, she behaved as if her decision alone was all that was necessary to win. But once Hillary threw her hat into the race, she literally threw it away. In hindsight, her presumption--her hubris--was her fatal flaw. All brand managers know there is no assumption of success when launching a new brand (even Apple’s eagerly anticipated launch of the iPhone had it’s nay-sayers and critics). It took Hillary an agonizingly long time to learn Brand Management 101: if nothing more, a brand must provide a consistent promise of a transformative experience. Yet, over the 16-month battle for leadership, she presented a myriad of messages to an ever-changing target market. She and her campaign consultants manufactured what seemed like weekly marketing platforms. They began with the inevitability of her nomination, then quickly morphed into finding her voice after she lost in Iowa and then rebounded in New Hampshire. Then they tried to compete with her long-term experience, then on to her electability via the powerful swing states, and finally, they were left to reveal what was actually authentic Hillary: a gritty, pugnacious, street smart fighter many people could relate to. As if this chaotic messaging wasn't enough, Hillary and her consultants also kept switching her “sweet spot” target market from women to students to the working middle and lower-middle class to the elderly and finally to the super-delegates. Her message and her audience changed so many times, she began to appear as if she would say anything to anyone to win. What began as a rather energetic (if over-confident) Presidential effort evolved into a scrappy, unsophisticated, embarrassing fistfight unworthy of either contender. Given her perpetually unfocused campaign management and her Zelig-like public personality, it is no wonder she ultimately lost to a well-funded campaign with a consistent message of aspiration, hope and change.

I came to the primary campaign as an “undecided;” I admired both democratic candidates. My head was with Obama, but my heart was with Hillary. I admit that most of the affection I felt for Hillary was attributed to her making history as the first significant female candidate. "So what if I don’t agree with her handling of Bill and Monica," I told myself, "She is a survivor. She can win!" But I also bristled at the idea of extending the Clinton dynasty. I was intrigued by the idea of wiping the slate of American government over the last 20 years clean and starting fresh. But I must admit that I liked Hillary just a smidgen more because we are both women. Somehow, deep down, I felt that a victory for Hillary was a victory for all women, everywhere. And though I never once uttered the words, this made me proud. It is one thing when Barbie can be an astronaut or a veterinarian or President of the United States, and quite another when a pear-shaped, middle-aged mother can do it.

I think that Hillary would have made a good President. Obviously, not everyone agrees with me. This is to be expected. But what I wasn't prepared for in the opposition of all things Hillary, was the rampant sexism. Her husband called the media coverage the “most biased coverage in history.” Her detractors pooh-poohed this as “competitive politics,” and offered witty, vitriolic one-liners in response (my favorite, the Harry Truman inspired: “if you can’t stand the heat, go back into the kitchen”). I now worry about what the next female candidate will have to overcome in order to win, to say nothing of what she will be subjected to when campaigning.

Today, as I stood in a busy bookstore in front of a silent television in the historically Republican state of Texas, a group of women gathered to watch with me. Some were old, some were young, some were somewhere in the middle. One blonde mom asked the black, female shopkeeper if she would mind turning the volume up, and she gladly complied. We watched Hillary concede with what seemed like a smile masking deep despair. It is hard to fail; it is unthinkable to imagine what it must be like to admit defeat to those who zealously applauded--and needed--your gargantuan effort. As we all stood there watching, a man behind us laughed and muttered “Evil bitch.” I whipped around; I could not believe what I was hearing. Ever the loud mouth, I tried to find the words to berate him, but I found myself uncharacteristically speechless. As I stared at him in utter shock, he laughed again, puffed out his chest, snarled his teeth and walked away. I looked at the woman standing next to me and she rolled her eyes. I turned back to Hillary as she continued, “Eighteen million of you from all walks of life: women and men, young and old, Latino and Asian, African-America and Caucasian, rich and poor, middle-class, gay and straight, you have stood with me…and I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me…the Democratic Party is a family and now it’s time to restore the ties that bind us together.”

In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t respond to the snarly-toothed man. There has been more than enough bitterness in this race already. My only regret is that he left before hearing Hillary’s heartfelt, heartbreaking request.

This essay was originally published on the design blog Speak Up.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome analysis, Debbie...and neat intellectual exercise.

But from where I'm standing, your equation just doesn't add up...let's break it down as 1+1=2...WE'RE DESPERATE FOR CHANGE!

Bill + Hillary (and they're inseparable, no matter what anyone says) = establishment, too much of a known element. -zh

6/08/2008 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger minus five said...

i think this is the smartest and most level-headed summary and observation i have read since this whole thing began. it makes me feel bad--that same sort of feeling i get the moment i realize that i haven't been able to see the forest for the trees.

maybe it's my naivety or a rare case of optimism or my fairytale imagination, but i've never thought of sex as a barrier to anything. i know that it has been and even that it really is sometimes, but somehow i've always subconsciously chosen to ignore it.

it has never seemed impossible to me for a woman to do anything a man can do. i figure if you really want to do something, you will find a way to do it.

i forget that a lot of people had to work very hard for me to grow up feeling that way. i know that if i were born ten or twenty years earlier, i might see things much differently. i forget to pay respect to those people in the world who have chosen to do things differently than everybody else.

you constantly reaffirm my fairytale imagination by being who you are and doing what you do every day. you make it seem easy. and effortless. even though you're always saying it's not.

thanks for writing this. i'll probably read it a few times and keep it forever.

p.s. that guy in the airport was probably from oklahoma. i'm sure nobody from my home state would behave that way in public. was he also wearing starched wranglers?

6/08/2008 10:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

I really enjoyed your post. Maybe next time, Debbie, you can offer to help Hillary with her brand management?

As for Obama®, I think he had plenty of help in the brand management arena. I agree with many of his ideas (many of them were Hillary's) but I think he's GROSSLY under-qualified.

6/09/2008 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger b rendan said...

Well written! However, Emily, understanding that no president does anything alone anymore (excluding some of Bush's bullheaded decisions) I cannot agree with you that Obama is "grossly underqualified." We have not given him much of a chance to prove himself, now have we? Let's just watch the general election campaign to choose the best candidate...

6/10/2008 08:47:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

I must strongly disagree. I think the female card is an excuse. While Hillary is a trailblazer, she is Hillary. The same "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" Hillary we dealt with for eight years. Secondly, will there really be much "change" when the succession goes Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton?

I respect her epic run, but I was spoiled on Hillary when she was first in the White House and while she may be the "change" we all need, she shot herself in the foot and put the bad taste in my mouth to the point I still don't like her.

6/10/2008 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

@ b rendan,
That is the point, he has not had enough time to prove himself. We should not have a wait and see attitude about the President of the United States. She/he needs to have a proven track record. I find it scary that the bar for this job is so low and that Obama could even be considered as a candidate for the Democratic Party.

6/11/2008 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger b rendan said...

Well, Emily, to me, the "other guy" is not a convincingly clear choice of the better this time around. The best option for this country right now, knowing we have to vote for the lesser of two evils, if you will, is Obama. A new ideology is better than an old ideology. As brainwashed as we have all been with "Hope and Change" it certainly sounds a whole lot better than "McCain and the Same." Understanding this as nothing more than clever rhetoric/soundbite talk, there is a grain of truth to it, and it obviously resonates. It's just scary to think that we could mistakingly elect more of the same, while he campaigns under his best behavior, only to reveal himself later as, more of the same!

6/12/2008 08:30:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

things i paint
things i photograph
design matters design matters poster designed by Firebelly
about me
My Photo
Name:
Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

things i do those i thank things i like current playlist