“Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.”
I’ve loved that quote since the first time I heard it as a young reporter, related by my crusty old managing editor (who remembered the Johnson days well). By inference, Johnson wasn’t just commenting on the unpredictable nature of politics – he was also saying something about the people who decide to seek the presidency, who willingly step out of their safe shelters to run, hell-bent for election, toward that hailstorm.
How well those folks weather the turbulence of a presidential campaign can tell us a lot about whether they’ll cave when the hailstorm hits, or if they’ll be able to get the job done no matter how the wind howls. Today, candidates must wield their personal brands like iron umbrellas, or else risk getting pummeled by the storm. A poorly developed personal brand leaves a candidate exposed to the elements.
When Ted Cruz dropped out of the Republican primary a few weeks ago, his inability to create an effective umbrella with his personal brand was as much to blame as Donald Trump’s success at hurling hailstones. Although he’s no longer a candidate, his campaign offers multiple lessons in how NOT to establish a personal brand.
Agree or disagree with his political stance, it’s easy to see that Cruz’s personal branding fell short on multiple levels.
Failure to establish clarity and consistency
Cruz’s hostility toward Obamacare is legendary; Biography.com notes he was “instrumental” in shutting down the government in 2013 with a 21-hour speech on the senate floor against the Affordable Care Act. Dislike of Obamacare is widespread among the Republican constituency, yet on Cruz’s campaign website, www.tedcruz.org, (which is no longer publicly available), no mention at all appeared of his stance on Obamacare. In contrast, Trump’s site clearly spells out his thoughts on health-care reform.
For brand messaging to be successful, it needs to be consistently communicated across multiple channels.
Failure to create likability
In any given election, half the voters will love a candidate and the other half will hate him or her — or at least that’s how it should go. Cruz, it seems, failed to generate likability — a personal branding essential — even among his own party.
Publicly recorded faux pas like having his young daughter reject his physical affection or accidentally bumping his wife in the face could have actually contributed to Cruz’s likability if he had played out those events with humor. Instead, the public is left to focus on former House Speaker John Boehner’s pronouncement about Cruz: “I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” (Side note: In a similarly ironic condemnations of character, the courts awarded custody of the kids to K-Fed instead of Britney.)
Focusing on reaction rather than action
To take the lead in a pack, candidates need to demonstrate action, not just reaction. Rather than focus on why an opponent is wrong, successful candidates lead by talking about how they would do things right. Yet much of Cruz’s branding, especially toward the end of his campaign, seemed to be more of an effort to differentiate himself from Trump, rather than establish what made him a unique trail-blazer. By being reactionary, he not only failed to set himself apart from Trump, but also from the other runners up in the GOP primary.
Failing to secure your brand
In addition to clearly establishing your personal brand, it’s essential to project and protect it. Cruz’s campaign seemed largely ineffective at leveraging digital tactics to communicate his brand; on Twitter, Cruz had just 1.2 million followers, while Trump has more than 8 million, Marco Rubio has more than 1.3 million, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have over 6 million and 2 million, respectively.
And in perhaps the most telling example of personal branding failure by the Cruz campaign, when you type the web address www.tedcruz.com into your browser’s address bar, this is what you see: