No backing away now from 'forward'

ElectionsPoliticsMarketingRichard NixonUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoLeo BurnettU.S. Presidential Election (2008)

President Barack Obama's re-election campaign pushed out one word last week to define his quest for a second term — "forward."

So how much does a single word matter? Quite a bit, marketing and branding experts say, even if they disagree on the choice.

"The reality is that Obama and (likely GOP opponent Mitt) Romney are brands, and every brand needs a purpose," said Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief strategy officer at Chicago-based marketing firm Leo Burnett.

Ahead of campaign rallies Saturday in Ohio and Virginia, the Obama campaign released a seven-minute video featuring the word "forward." Much as when Coca-Cola goes to battle against Pepsi, for instance, the slogan and theme can make a big difference, marketing experts said.

Hahn-Griffiths, who moved to America from the United Kingdom in the late-1990s and can't vote in the U.S. presidential election, said he likes the term because it is simple and conveys a "work in progress."

"It says, 'I exist to provide momentum, to look ahead,'" he said.

Steve Gaither, of marketing and communications firm JB Chicago, said he thinks it's a good choice for someone operating with the existing power, like an incumbent. But from a marketing perspective, he said the word or slogan chosen will stick because it creates an image in someone's head.

"You tell me your name is Chris, and I won't remember that," he said. "You say Kris Kross, and I think of that image of the ('90s hip-hop duo) with their clothes on backward. Whether people want to or not, when they see Obama, they are going to think 'forward.'"

But not everyone is crazy about "forward." Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said candidate branding works best with one word or theme reflective of the national mood. He thinks Obama's previous use of "change" in 2008 was stronger.

"The problem with 'forward' is that it doesn't have a defined benefit," Calkins said. "I don't think it will resonate. Clearly, he had to change the slogan from the previous one. I'm just not sure about 'forward' because, well, forward to what?"

Alan Malter, associate professor of marketing at University of Illinois at Chicago, said companies or campaigns find themselves in a difficult position when an established slogan becomes the subject of ridicule.

"There's a liability because you are making a claim, not saying, 'Remember me because this is clever,'" Malter said, adding that an example for Obama would be if the economy gets worse and the campaign is forced to rethink "forward."

"It would be hard to have a slogan if it doesn't stand for what you are delivering," he said.

It didn't take long for the choice to be dissected. Some conservative-leaning publications and blogs, such as The Washington Times, argued that "forward" has long ties to socialism and Marxism. Leftist blogs fired back that other politicians have used the term too. Take, for instance, President Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address phrase "To go forward at all is to go forward together."

jjaworski@tribune.com

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ElectionsPoliticsMarketingRichard NixonUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoLeo BurnettU.S. Presidential Election (2008)
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