It's funny that the tools to accomplish it are rarely in the control of marketers, whether corporate or, as the above image references, politicians.
We all know that achieving a real, binding agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is about as likely as reversing global warming. Ok, maybe its chances are better, however slightly. There are good-willed people on both sides of the conflict who want to stop the violence and suffering that have afflicted that part of the world for over half a century. I personally want it to happen.
But a photo won't make it so. We've seen it before, literally and figuratively, and it triggers a perceptual disconnect with what we already know, believe, and fear. It's a label all right, but it risks labeling the talks for what they are now (doomed) vs. what the supporters hope will occur (success).
It's bad branding.
I'm continually surprised by just how dumb the "smart" politicos act when it comes to communicating; the principles and tactics that win election campaigns -- identify hot-button, knee-jerk issues that compel voters to travel to polls on a set day to do a particular thing (i.e. vote) -- are never useful, or sustainable when it comes to communicating long-term policy issues.
The functions of government are a series of behaviors that can be spun one way or another, and sometimes with some immediate, if nuanced, success. But the vast majority of people who aren't otherwise blinded by their own zealotry see through the hype. Reality is unavoidable. Worse, most people keep a running tally of the events that constitute their reality.
So it's never enough to appear successful. Sooner or later, governments need to be successful.
Same goes for commercial brands.
We've seen the corollaries of handshake photos from most brand marketers.
- The schlubs sitting around the television actually talking about their beers
- Insurance buyers waxing poetic about how happy they are
- Models effusing almost orgasmically over their latest kitchen appliance, technology toy, or car
- The cologne, software, or clothing that 'wins the girl' or 'attracts the guy'
The handshake approach guides most stock photography in print ads and online, too, both in the B2C and B2B worlds: if you've seen one smiling, multi-culturally diverse group sitting around a conference room table, or a would-be consumer holding up a product in which he or she is utterly enraptured, well, you've seen a few, probably. Or lots.
The branding experts will tell you that we see what they've contrived the photos to say.
Of course, we don't. Perception is more complicated than that, and most people see the not-so-invisible hand of artifice behind the images, making the resulting effect at times the opposite to what was intended. Bad branding, like the Annapolis handshake, hurts brands more than it helps them.
If we thought outside the branding box just for a moment, we could see that, when it comes to perceptions of success, people conjure them from a variety of inputs. Few of those inputs can be directly articulated by marketing communications.
Business success is the result of sales, first and foremost...or orders, or inquiries, or even babble of conversation and buzz (that has to connect pretty fast back to sales, or it's just noise). Success comes from recommendations and referrals. It’s something to which people can point, not a communication that presumes to be pointed at them.
When they do see success, it's the most potent motivator for trial and purchase. It's stronger than an FYI referral, more immediate that trying to promote a set of product benefits, and a lot more dependable than hoping a creative slant or slogan will translate into transactions.
Successful products succeed, not to be too circular about it. You can see it in the movie business most clearly, when opening weekends determine the ultimate fate of a release. Popularity and all of its commensurate qualities -- attention, demand, scarcity -- is the most important attribute to which most products and services brands can aspire.
In government, the same rules apply, so in the instance of the Annapolis meeting, some evidence of success needed to emerge. Considering that all of the non-participants -- Iran and the motley crew of insane murderers it sponsors and encourages -- are committed to destroying any emergent success from the conference means that there was, in truth, no real success whatsoever to promote out of the Annapolis meeting.
No picture can brand something into something that it's not. At least not for long.
So what should the first steps of a branding campaign in business or politics look like? Well, I'd take most of the money out of the branding communications budget, and see if it helps do any of the following:
- Improve actual operational excellence. Make everything work perfectly
- Identify the shortest path from launch/start to desired outcome, and figure out how to get there
- In doing so, find the first meaningful, major milestone that will evidence progress
- Describe the milestone for what it is, and avoiding over-extending your claims past that event
The marketing budget should be oriented toward delivering that business strategy, not pre-announcing it (or fast-tracking to its conclusion). There's little branding worth its salt at the point of a product or government initiative launch, other than the communications focused on delivering tangible results.
You need to manufacture the success before you promote it. Only after achieving it would I spend money on promoting a product sell-out, or a photo of smiling political adversaries.
Branding success into a core business or government attribute requires a fundamental rethinking of how we communicate with people.
It requires more than a handshake.