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Learn From Obama's (Boring) New Campaign Slogan

In Washington, there's no start-up like an election campaign. And there's no quicker way to miss your mark than brand with a lackluster slogan.
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"Forward." That's the new slogan the Obama campaign revealed this week.

Really?

Here in Washington, D.C.,  there's no start-up like a political campaign. It's the city's No. 1 industry, and its superstars face the same challenges as their counterparts in other new ventures. They spend their days worrying about things like personnel and products; about funds and focus.

Which brings us to the 2012 campaigns' slogans.

A great slogan–for a campaign or for any new venture–needs to do several things. It should sum up the venture's key message in a single word or phrase. It should evoke its customers' needs and explain emotionally how the campaign or business can meet them. It should differentiate the campaign or business from the other guys.

Think of some of the iconic corporate slogans: Apple ("Think Different"). Avis Car Rental ("We Try Harder"). Nike ("Just Do It").  When they work, they punch far above their word count. They're crammed with meaning. Sometimes, they're even funny. That's what makes them so hard–and so worthwhile.

Four years ago, Obama's campaign came up with two awesome slogans. His supporters chanted "Yes We Can" to the point that an A-list group of artists and musicians turned it into a popular song and video. And, "Change We Can Believe In," was more than a slogan. It was a rallying call with a hip, optimistic feel that drew a sharp distinction with the McCain campaign's slogan: "Country First." (Out of context, McCain's slogan sounded more like the opening lines of a multi-genre set list, or maybe the name of a midwestern credit union.)

Now, "Foward."

This time around, "Forward" is worse than bad: it's bland. (But, before Mitt Romney's campaign gets too excited about how boring its opponent's slogan is, keep in mind what Romney is using: "Believe in America." That's such a vanilla, say-nothing slogan that it turns out that Sen. John Kerry used the exact same phrase in his 2004 presidential bid.)

So, it's a problem for both campaigns. If an organization's slogan doesn't say much, the most likely reason is that the organization itself doesn't have anything compelling to say.

We're not going to solve the campaigns' banality challenges, but there's a key lesson in here for any new business. After interviewing several hundred successful entrepreneurs over the past five years for two books (and more articles than I can remember), I've learned an important lesson over and over: Always focus on customer needs.  Well, distilling your venture's essence into a short slogan, or theme, or message is more than a marketing tool. It can reveal pretty quickly how focused you are on your customers' pain.

In other words, if you can't come up with a compelling slogan, maybe you're not really selling anything worth shouting about.  It's worth going through the exercise and figuring out what phrase explains what your company does, appeals emotionally to your customers' needs, and explains why you meet those needs better than anybody else.

Sound like a good idea? For inspiration (and a bit of historical-trivia fun), here are five of the most iconic presidential campaign slogans from throughout U.S. history:

  • 1916: Woodrow Wilson: "He Kept Us Out of War." Not a bad slogan; it focused on the top issue in the 1916 campaign. Of course six months after his reelection, Wilson reversed course entirely and sent U.S. troops to France.
  • 1952: Dwight Eisenhower: "I Like Ike." After more than two decades of depression and war, the country was eager for a candidate who promised something less exhausting, less complicated; a steady hand.

  • 1964: Barry Goldwater: "In your heart, you know he's right." Fun and different, but easily mocked. Opponents parodied it as, "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

  • 1984: Ronald Reagan: "Morning in America." A fantastic slogan: brief and optimistic. Captured the mood of the country.

  • 1992: Bill Clinton: "For People, For a Change." Clinton's campaign is remembered more for, "It's the economy, stupid," but that was an internal campaign slogan.
IMAGE: White House
Last updated: May 2, 2012

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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