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How Leaders Use ‘Branding’ to Improve Image

2017-9-4

Throughout history, many leaders have used the media as an important tool to shape their image and connect with voters.

Today, the use of marketing and branding is even more powerful because of the growing number of media sources and influence of social media.

Former United States President Barack Obama is recognized for using marketing in new ways to get elected. He was largely unknown to many Americans before deciding to seek the presidency.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to the crowd as he arrives at a rally Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, in Youngstown, Ohio. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to the crowd as he arrives at a rally Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, in Youngstown, Ohio. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Much of Obama’s success came from his use of social media to reach out to the public and engage with supporters. Online social networks were still new for most people leading up to the 2008 presidential campaign.

One of his most memorable tools was the “Hope” image – created by artist Shepard Fairey – which Obama used to define his idea of leadership. This widely seen image became a big part of his campaign messaging.

Advertising Age magazine even named Obama Marketer of the Year in October 2008, right before his election win over John McCain. It was the first time a politician had received the award.

Marketing experts have also praised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his ability to create memorable moments through social media and surprise appearances. Many photographs and videos of these events have gone viral on the internet.

Becoming prime minister at age 43, some media reported on Justin Trudeau’s good looks and warm, friendly personality. During the political campaign and while in office, Trudeau has shown up unannounced at cities and towns across the country to meet face-to-face with Canadians. He is often surrounded by excited crowds when he travels overseas.

One of Trudeau’s most powerful moments came in December 2015, when he went to an airport in Toronto to welcome the first Syrian refugees to Canada. He spoke with arriving families, offered them warm clothing and said he was pleased to “show the world how to open our hearts” to the refugees.

Salah Hassan is a professor of marketing at The George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C.

He says leaders like Trudeau are good at finding new ways to connect with the public, as well as showing sensitivity.

"The sensitivity score with the prime minister of Canada is very high. People adore him for his sensitivity and sensibility. So these are very important aspects."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in the India Day Parade in Montr<I>&#</i>233;al, on August 20, 2017. (PMO Photo by Adam Scotti)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in the India Day Parade in Montr&#233;al, on August 20, 2017. (PMO Photo by Adam Scotti)

Historically, Hassan noted, there have been other leaders who were very successful at shaping a strong, personal brand.

"Two world leaders come to mind who become legends in their own way. And these are Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, and Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt."

He noted the two men were similar in a number of ways and both became Nobel Peace Prize winners. They were seen as freedom fighters, making great attempts to achieve peace. Each man kept talking about his ideas for peaceful, democratic change.

However, Hassan says the branding of political leaders is much different than advertising for services or products. This is because with people, the branding also includes their feelings, personal values and actions taken over time. Trust, he adds, is very important.

"Truth and trust are very, very important elements of building the brand. And bringing an authentic message of that brand that can be believable to your target audience."

Hassan adds that politicians must keep in mind that if they don’t take control of their own brand, someone else will.

Some world leaders use photographs, videos and public events as a way to create a softer public image. One example is Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The 65-year-old ruler has led the country for 32 years, and is preparing for a general election next July.

Human rights groups have criticized his government for using its control over the judicial system to frighten his political opponents and activists. In a 2016 report, the U.S. State Department identified major human rights problems in Cambodia.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment workers during a visit to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 23, 2017. The U.S. State Department expressed concern Wednesday about what it said it was the d
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment workers during a visit to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 23, 2017. The U.S. State Department expressed concern Wednesday about what it said it was the d

Recently, the Cambodian leader has been using social media to show more of his personal life, along with official activities. A favorite place to leave photos is Facebook, where people can see: Hun Sen shopping; Hun Sen working out; Hun Sen, with family.

One photo shows him smiling while driving a passenger car, instead of riding in his bulletproof government vehicle. In another picture, he is seen surrounded by family members while recovering in a hospital bed. Other photos on his Facebook page show Hun Sen holding babies or meeting with young people.

Similar photos can be seen on the 51VOA.COM of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His government has also been accused of human rights abuses and attempts to limit political freedoms.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Facebook Image (Facebook)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Facebook Image (Facebook)

Another leader who has appeared with children at public events is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He has faced international condemnation for his government’s continued missile tests and nuclear activities.

Hassan notes that leaders trying to improve a bad image face a big problem if they have not already created a lasting brand to carry them through.

"The stronger the brand, the more likely that brand will survive these setbacks. But the weaker, the more vulnerable, the less truthful, the less authentic candidates, when they are exposed, may not be able to recover."

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a series of photos showing a different side of him than the world usually sees. Included were pictures of Putin shirtless in a boat, catching fish, swimming underwater and sitting in a forest.

In the past, Putin has released similar photos showing him in unofficial settings. Those images, as well as the most recent ones, have always been a big hit on social media.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. His report was based on stories from VOA Khmer, Reuters and the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

branding – n. positioning people or products as a particular kind

engage v. to get and keep (someone's attention, interest, etc.)

online – adj. related to a computer or telecommunications system

gone viralexpression. to spread quickly, usually through person-to-person electronic communication

adore – v. to love or admire very much

sensibility – n. ability to feel and understand emotions

legend n. a famous person

authentic adj. real, true or accurate

shopping – v. to go to a place where goods and services are sold

vulnerable adj. easily hurt or harmed