With this year’s heated presidential election, brands are jumping on the election bandwagon.

By Ann Cooper

The votes have been counted. When it comes to branding, among the winners are…certain companies opportunistic enough to have hitched their brand wagon to the 2008 political election. With its vice presidential and presidential debates attracting an unprecedented number of viewers in the millions and almost the same amount of column inches, the 2008 election has also proven to be a winning ticket for many marketers.

One of the most successful to piggyback onto this rising political tide is CNN with its mantra “CNN=Politics.” At both the Republican and Democratic Conventions, the cable network won over the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of attendees by creating the CNN Grill, a bar/restaurant/studio where people could hang out, and from where CNN did its daily broadcasts. Specially fabricated for each of the two convention venues, people congregated to talk, work, eat, drink special edition CNN Red Ale, read the giant news crawl, and of course, watch CNN on flat panel TVs.

The Grill’s concept and execution came from the New York-based
design firm COLLINS:, which worked on it with promotions agency Civic Entertainment Group. “When creating a brand you’re dealing with two opposites,” says Brian Collins, founder and chief creative officer of COLLINS:. “On the one hand, you’re dealing with authenticity, which is what’s true to the brand, and, on other hand, congruency, which is relevant to the culture.”

Collins had worked with CNN and Civic at the party conventions in 2004, when they first created the idea of the CNN Grill. “Four years ago it was the first time anyone had ever done anything like this,” he says. But back then it was still in its infancy as a branding concept. In the interim, “CNN=Politics,” had moved from being just a marketing call to an on-air mantra. So when Civic contacted the COLLINS: group again four years later, they had to up the ante.

“We had to find a context both true for location and appropriate for the brand story we wanted to tell,” says Collins. “So what we did in New York at the Republican convention four years ago was different from what we did in Denver and St. Paul. We didn’t just design something, we really tried to take into account the historical and social context of the city we working in.”

In Denver’s case that meant refurbishing a brick warehouse still displaying the “ghost” signs of previous owners. While doing research, Collins had come across Ted Turner’s speeches about the founding of CNN back in 1980. “The original mission for CNN was basically about the civic responsibility of a news organization to provide the public with information they can act on, and better, makes choices about their lives,” Collins says. From that came the idea of asking online viewers what politics equaled and represented to them. “We got hundreds of responses in two days and we brought those quotes to life on menus and mugs, but primarily on the Denver building’s façade. We wanted a different point of view about what politics meant. It can be so divisive and so negative, and we just wanted to hear people’s voices.” It became one of the most talked-about components of the entire 360-degree integrated and interactive marketing effort.

In St. Paul, they took over a pre-existing pub/tavern, which didn’t have the big surfaces to work with that Denver had. “We took the language of neon bar signs and amplified that language everywhere—both inside and out,” says Collins.

The Grills became the hot ticket items at the conventions with lines to get in forming around the block and an assortment of celebrities dropping by. CNN was delighted. But according to Collins, the real measure of success is whether people make it contagious. “In other words are they so interested that they want to share it with other people?” he says. “So my measure was the number of people taking photographs of it. There were hundreds on Flickr and it became a story people could talk about.”

People are also talking about Jones Soda, an eight-year-old premium soda company whose beverages are made from pure cane sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, which is used by the likes of Coke and Pepsi. It’s also known for its wide variety of idiosyncratic flavors including Turkey and Gravy, or Bohemian Raspberry, as well as the rotating label designs offering customers the opportunity to brand their own bottle of soda. Then, earlier this year, it launched a new variety of soft drink, “Campaign Cola,” featuring the faces and logos of the main political candidates on the labels. Jones also offered consumers the chance to register and vote for their favorite label on its Web site. Buying a case also constituted a vote. While underneath McCain’s face was the logo, “Pure McCain Cola,” Obama’s mugshot featured “Yes We Can Cola.” Hillary Clinton also had her own label with the mantra, “Capital Hillary Cola,” and Ron Paul had “Ron Paul Revolution.” Visitors could weigh in on political issues and participate in photo and video contests. “The concept of putting the pictures of political candidates on the bottles was a no brainer,” explains Jones Soda CEO Steve Jones (who is not related to the founder). “We thought it a great, fun, irreverent idea. And we wanted to be involved with social issues and here’s a really relevant and social issue: the election. So, why not put a great tasting flavor out there? That’s how we connected the two issues.”

But first they did some research. “We just wanted to make sure we weren’t going to run too far afoul of the election law,” says Jones. “Pretty much anyone can sell anything with the candidates’ names because they’re all in the public domain. So long as you have the right to the photographs and you’re not giving candidates any money, then you can put them on T-shirts and sell them quite legally.”

It was Jones’ agency, Cole & Weber United, which came up with the original concept. “They look to us for ideas like Campaign Cola, which they thought would galvanize and get people involved,” says executive creative director Todd Grant. “We probably presented about 100 different ideas based on timing and market circumstances. We try and think of ideas that are not traditional advertising, but that tie in well with ‘Run with the little guy…create some change,’ which is their company motto.”

Grant had worked on several election year-themed campaigns in the past, some of which never saw the light of day. One that did was the Budweiser lizards campaign with Frank and Louie that he and partner Steve Dildarian created while they were at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. “For the election, we had Louie running for president of the swamp against the turtle,” he says. “Usually people riff on the election or have a pseudo election off to the side. But this is the first time I’ve seen candidates being used in the actual ads. That’s what’s cool about Jones. They want to know what people think.”

The company already had a history of creating buzz around the brand through its unorthodox flavors, such as dirt and sweat, for the Seattle Seahawks. Plus, all Jones products had consumers’ pictures on their labels, which tied into the idea of using the candidates’ pictures. “We’re a rebellious and irreverent kind of brand, so we said, ‘Let’s put their face up there,’” says Jones. “I saw T-shirts and hats. I saw a barbeque sauce with an animated likeness, but we’re the only ones who gave them new names like ‘Yes we Can Cola,’ and ‘Pure McCain.’”

They made a point of informing all of the candidates, with the Obama contingent ordering a whole pallet of soda at the Democratic convention. (Jones stresses it was “Off the vote,” meaning it did not count as a vote for the candidate.) “As a branding exercise it’s one of most successful things we’ve ever done,” says Jones. “We’re trying to be relevant and contemporary and this puts us in middle of everything.” Marketing was done in-house and consisted mainly of word of mouth and allowing people to vote on their Website, which garnered the most column inches.

As for who won, at the time of writing, Obama has over 10,000 votes, and Ron Paul has sold almost 6,000, twice as much as McCain and then last comes Hillary, says Jones, who admits his customers are probably more liberal than most Americans. “We sold more than we initially thought we’d sell. We’re very non-partisan, but our consumers clearly selected Obama. We’re not declaring victory yet, but it’s pretty conclusive.”

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