Kamala Harris: Democratic VP Pick and Brand Name

Aug 27, 2020

On August 11, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named Kamala Harris, the senator from California, as his running mate. In this historic announcement, Harris became the first Black woman and the first woman of Indian descent to be nominated for office by a major party.

Harris, who ran a presidential campaign of her own this year, is no stranger to the process of marketing herself successfully, according to Ellen Schapps, a former VP of marketing at a major consumer products firm, who teaches the Marketing of an American President at the Business School. Schapps says that Harris’s familiar, well-developed brand makes her an asset as a VP candidate and could increase the chances of a Biden-Harris ticket win.

Below, Schapps shares her thoughts on Harris’s qualities as a candidate, the unique challenges she faces as a woman of color, and the marketing and branding techniques needed for a successful political campaign.

Was Kamala Harris the right pick for Joe Biden’s VP from a strategic standpoint?

From a marketing point of view, she really was the right pick. One thing you want for a vice president is that they really complement the president. She definitely fulfills that for Biden. First, in terms of age. She’s younger and can inspire young people to come out and vote for her, which is important in terms of demographic targeting. For people worried that Biden is too old, there is confidence that Harris could step in on day one and take over because of all the experience she has. Confidence is a major attribute of a strong brand, and she demonstrates such a quality. Second, she is well known and exhibits a high awareness — a factor that is especially important during the pandemic when the candidates are limited in the in-person events they can hold. Building awareness is something that can take a while and is best done through going out to meet people and gaining media coverage. Since fundraising will be done mostly through Zoom now, being well known provides an added advantage. Last, you don’t want there to be anything about the vice president that embarrasses the president — no scandals or baggage — and Harris doesn’t seem to have any major drawbacks. The fact that she also ran in the primaries means she knows exactly what it takes to run for such a highly visible office. And, from a fundraising perspective, the campaign raised an amazing $48 million dollars in the first 48 hours of her announcement as VP.

What is Harris’s brand?

Harris has a very strong brand identity, which is extremely important for a candidate. Part of what makes for a strong brand identity is a powerful personal story, which she absolutely has as a woman of color. Her mother was from India and her father was from Jamaica, and they met during the Civil Rights movement. She was brought up — similar to former president Barack Obama in some ways — with the message that if you have a problem, you should go do something about it. Part of her brand is also having extensive experience. She was a district attorney in San Francisco, then attorney general in California, and, most recently, a US senator. She gained notoriety as a senator when she questioned former US attorney general Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and was tough on them. This toughness is also one of her brand traits.

What obstacles could she face as a woman of color running for office?

Women have to be careful. There are many double standards. A woman can’t be seen as too shrill — a word pretty much only used to describe women. A man can shout, but a woman has to be careful in that way. That’s where I think Harris has the perfect balance: she’s got charisma, but she’s no pushover. There was a demand for Biden to pick a woman of color, but I think you have to let the electorate talk about that — she shouldn’t be focusing on it too much herself. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton made the mistake of overly focusing on being a woman candidate in 2016, and many female voters were looking for more.

What are the most important marketing techniques for a successful political campaign?

You have to get out there and have as much visibility to the public as you can. The more people you meet, the more money you can raise and the more you can get your message across. A combination of marketing techniques should be used to gain voters, such as polling and market research to identify a need; conducting competitive analysis to gain a competitive advantage; and crafting a unique message to enhance awareness while establishing a consistent and authentic brand identity. You need to have effective fundraising skills; a media campaign targeted to the correct demographic, psychographic profile, and geographic location; and the right traditional and social media mix with get-out-the-vote efforts.

The increased spending on digital media ads has skyrocketed to about 20 percent of total campaign spending, but traditional TV ads are still the predominant form of advertising, because they can reach the most people. It is important to place advertising strategically. For example, Biden is zeroing in on battleground states, as the Democrats want to win back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. You have to maximize your spending in key areas, as a national campaign can be expensive and not as efficient.

Political campaigns, similar to consumer products, have an advantage if the candidate creates a powerful USP or unique selling proposition. The Biden campaign has developed the slogan, “Build Back Better,” which reflects his economic vision for the country, where he is outlining his proposals to help people during this pandemic and beyond.

Could the Biden-Harris ticket win?

Harris really checks off a lot of the boxes, and I think if there’s a good turnout, there’s a good chance they will win. Another important characteristic for a political candidate to have is authenticity, and Harris’s came into question after she flip flopped regarding the elimination of private health insurance. Biden, however, is perceived as genuinely authentic. “Uncle Joe” is generally thought of as reliable, compassionate, empathetic, and he tells it like it is, sometimes to his own detriment. In the past, candidates such as John Kerry, Al Gore, and Mitt Romney were not considered authentic and it negatively affected their campaigns. I’d expect the Biden-Harris ticket to inspire enthusiasm for people to turn out and vote, which was a big problem in 2016. In 2012, when Obama was running for re-election, 66 million people turned out to vote. In 2016, it dropped to 60 million. There was a decrease in Hispanic voters, single women, Asian women, millennials, and Black women. As a word of caution, however, as election day approaches, history has taught us that the election becomes a choice between the two presidential candidates, and the importance of the VP fades.


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