Framing the Narrative – or – What branding can learn from Karl Rove

There is an interesting phrase used in politics, “framing the narrative.”  Essentially it is about putting the framework for a coherent set of stories about a person or event, and then sticking to that framework.  Of course the opposing side will try to do the same thing.

Who wins?  Whoever has the strongest narrative framework and the greatest talent in expressing the stories within that framework.

Karl Rove is a master of the art in framing the narrative for his candidates.  This is a fact, not a judgement.  Rove knows about the power of symbols, of metaphors, to get beyond the rationalizations and right to the emotional heart of people.  By framing the 2004 presidential election about war, security, safety, 9/11 and “homeland” it was possible to crowd out the very real issues around healthcare, growing inequality of incomes and opportunities and other day-to-day problems.  It was the winning strategy.  

The most successful politicians have crafted a coherent narrative about their life and how that makes them uniquely qualified for the position they want to have.  I deliberately use the word “crafted” in the previous sentence.  To give sense to our lives we turn them into narratives.  The stories and pieces that don’t fit into the narrative are forgotten or downplayed.  The ones that shape the narrative shift to the foreground.  Politicians understand this and make deliberate choices in their public narratives.  The recent presidential contest was an example of two competing narratives.   Each one recounted the struggles and impossible obstacles they faced as young men and how that shaped their character and prepared them for the presidency.  

McCain with his powerful narrative of being a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam was, and is, a tremendously compelling human story.  It is a gripping narrative. Visceral. What he wasn’t able to do is tie that together with why that will make him a better president.  

Obama’s narrative was less about the physical and mental ordeal and more about the obstacles he faced growing up with little money, racism and social pressures.  He was able to connect his personal history to his goal of improving healthcare with the stories of his mother’s struggles to get the healthcare insurers to cover the medical bills as she was dying of cancer.  This is an ordeal in which many people can easily imagine themselves.  We’ve all had experience with health insurance companies denying payment for one bill or another.  It is less dramatically gripping than McCain’s strong.  At the same time it is more accessible to most people and ties directly into a major issue of the day.

So what does this have to do with branding?  

Everything.

Successful branding is about framing the narrative.  It is about telling a coherent set of stories within that framework.  And it is about understanding the power of symbols and metaphors in attracting the right kind of attention.

In short, brand marketing has much in common with political consulting.  And with theater.  Political theater. Branded entertainment.  Framing the narrative.  

Why narrative and not positioning?  

Ah, let’s frame that argument!  

Positioning is about defending one’s position.  It is static.  I stand for this and this only, unchanging in the face of time or circumstances.  

Narrative is about time.  There is the next scene, the following act, the next chapter.  Built into narrative is this recognition that time matters, that situations change.

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