“Again and Again and Again and Again.” Those are the words of the day in Republican presidential politics. Again the candidate is named Bush. Again the candidate is named Trump. Again a famous political name and legacy is asking for votes. Again, a household name, famous for other reasons, hopes that the brand power can transfer from the two R’s – Real Estate and Reality TV – into voter confidence.
Brand names have a long history in politics. Bush gives us one of the more nuanced family legacy candidacies in the history of American presidential politics. His family name is so entrenched in American government that speculation about his presidential ambitions has been discussed openly for over a decade. Jeb Bush’s own mother, Barbara, once was quoted as saying she thought the country had seen just about as much of the Bushes as they could take, and she did not think Jeb should run. Being a candidate who is both brother and son to United States Presidents is unprecedented.
How does all that political history impact the Bush brand? The same way a long history works with products. If Oreo wants to come up with a brand extension, it asks: how powerful is the trademark? Can we extend goodwill from one product to another? Will the “Bush” mark transition well into another presidential candidate? Not even Hillary herself has to deal with as much name brand baggage as Jeb Bush. While she seems focused on riding back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the “Bill and Hill” wave, Jeb’s announcement identified arguably his greatest asset and said, “Don’t judge me by my name.”
Is the Bush brand already old news? Brands have a sort of “use it or lose it” element to them, whether in politics or on products. Too long a lapse between uses and the value of the name will disintegrate. But the next generation politician can still reap benefits even if there has been a gap of years since the last family member was in office. There is an interesting phenomenon with product brands. Legally, rights in a trademark are gone once the goodwill the name signifies to the purchasing public is gone. The goodwill sometimes dissipates in just a few years. But, sometimes, old brands will be revived after a decade or more because of the emotional ties that consumers feel for the name.
Would a product ever say “Don’t judge Oreo chocolate bars on what you know about Oreo cookies?” Yeah, I don’t think so. What is the point of leveraging the brand if you are going to distance yourself from it? In trademark infringement cases, use of a powerful brand in conjunction with a line extension or co-branding is always powerful evidence that consumers will not be confused as to the source of the product. The argument is that the powerful brand names provide unambiguous differentiation (as long as that name is in fact a true brand and not a generic term). Such is the concept of goodwill in trademark law. So, is Jeb Bush really turning that principle on its head by saying he feels no entitlement as a result of “… party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn.” In a word, no.
He is recognizing his brand, and doing nothing to retreat from all that brand power brings to him. He is simply saying that he is the new product and stands on his own two feet. Name alone usually cannot create success, either in politics, or the commercial marketplace, but experience enhances product quality. For heirs to a political heritage, a lifetime of exposure to the people and instruments of power can create the type of know how needed to extend a political brand from one generation to another.
Don’t buy Milka chocolate bars with Oreo because you love Oreo. Buy it because it’s a great new product; just don’t forget about the strong trademarks and what they mean to you. Remember when Andrew Card, George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, said Jeb would be a stronger candidate without the “Bush” brand? Andrew said that if Jeb ran under “John Ellis” (his given and middle names) he could sidestep all the baggage of the Bush name, and perhaps of any anti-dynasty bias. Jeb was much more clever than that. He didn’t disclaim the importance of the Bush brand. He just said to like the product for all it represents.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is the brand personified. He made his announcement from a building branded Trump Tower. Even in the wake of the 2012 election, where “the 1%” became a catchphrase, Trump defined his brand as this: “I’m really rich.” He threatened to run for president at least twice before, thus imbuing his brand, by now, with at least some semblance of political color. His brand may not be loved, but it gets him attention; skeptics are writing today that all he wants is more brand-building attention, and that as much as he would love to be president, that is not what his campaign is about. It is about burnishing his “Trump” trademark for his next round of commercial ventures.
Celebrities have sometimes surprised the experts. The national media looked at Jesse Ventura’s candidacy as a joke when he ran for governor of the State of Minnesota in 1998. But when he won the election, he won a lot of fans in the process. The image of a Navy SEAL may play well in any political race. The image of a pro wrestler? Probably not so much.
Political dynasties have always been with us. Going back in time, over 100 families have had at least three members serve in the U.S. Congress. On the other hand, where there is no family name recognition, money can buy and grow brand names for products. Those with huge personal fortunes to invest, like Michael Bloomberg, can succeed. (Still, Bloomberg left office with a significant following and often high praise for his performance.) Other millionaires and billionaires, from Ross Perot to Steve Forbes, have mounted presidential campaigns. Perot was able to mount a spectacular third party candidacy that drew him millions of votes, and may well have tipped the balance in the election of Bill Clinton.
Both political family names and celebrity names strongly parallel trademarks for products. Those things that courts have recognized in protecting product names are the same traits that make name recognition so valuable to a politician. At the presidential level, a strong trademark must symbolize strong product traits. In trademark law, cases are often won when even surnames can become strong marks if they have acquired “secondary meaning,” which is a way of saying that otherwise common names, when put in the context of a product, have come to mean the product. Think Disney.
Name recognition alone may cause local voters to pull a lever, but in the race for the White House, the winning brand needs more than name recognition alone. The political name still must represent a product that people want to buy.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.