Howard Hughes for President

By the end of the day, we Americans will have selected a new president. It’s not too much of a stretch to look at the process as yet another battle of the brands. Republicans versus Democrats lining up in opposing uniforms, with banners waving social security, compassionate conservatism, education, defense, prosperity, and character. Elephants and donkeys.

Just when the world seems singularly global and warlike, with serious shooting wars in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the polls don’t focus much on qualifications or preparation for the office. Talk shows, chat rooms, and research focus pretty much squarely on the brand and its packaging. Studies show 47 percent of Americans think one guy is a little rigid and stuck up, and 82 percent believe the other guy has a cool wink and looks like he might enjoy a beer.

What’s Reality Got to Do With It?

We might like to talk about the wisdom of the electorate, but isn’t it uncanny that Election Day falls between those two other events that most fiercely engage our brand loyalties: the World Series and the Super Bowl? We choose our elected representatives the same way we choose our food, cars, and clothes. We might read the labels, but we eat, drive, and wear the brands. It takes a true brand meltdown — a la Firestone tires — for us to switch.

As it is, no amount of political financial reform can return the electoral process to its original revolutionary concept: an exercise in choice and democracy.

What’s Democracy Got to Do With It?

Fielding a national candidate — and, more often, state and local candidates — takes millions of dollars, research, packaging, half-truths and outright lies, media buys, tag lines, graphics, publicity, and the ability to pound a message home over and over again.

It’s all the stuff that makes up a brand, plain and simple. Create and advertise the ideas, images, and emotions that win the hearts and minds of an electorate at the polls, in the aisles, or at the business end of a mouse. Sometimes the results might be congruent with the candidate, but cynicism is deeply rooted in the process.

A Major Brand Switches Direction

While waiting for the election results, how about looking at a recent case of brand development — as told by a company’s public relations director. It’s a story that illustrates how simplicity triumphs over complexity and how little it might matter in the end.

You know Howard Hughes. How hard could it be to build a brand around a Texas tycoon and movie mogul who set aviation records, built the giant “Spruce Goose,” discovered Jane Russell (or at least focused his cameras on her anatomy), and fathered a company that is the world’s leading provider of commercial satellite services, satellite-based private business networks, and DirecTV, the leading digital entertainment provider with 9 million U.S. customers?

This doesn’t even take into account the history of both Hughes Aircraft Corporation and Hughes Electronics Corporation as the leading suppliers of defense and automotive electronics and the manufacturers of satellite systems.

Try dealing with this complexity as a corporate brand manager — a brand that has to live in the shadow of General Motors, which shelled out $5 billion for the company in 1985. And then consider the additional burden of the public conception of Howard Hughes ending his days as an eccentric recluse obsessed with washing his hands and bedeviled by his own demons.

The Hughes Brand… What Brand?

Laura Holson of The New York Times (October 23, 2000) wrote “…if you ask average investors what Hughes is well-known for, two things generally come to mind: airplanes and Howard… who founded the company.”

Howard Hughes was a billionaire when a billion dollars was still serious money. Search for him on Google, and you’ll come up with a few sites on his history and Hollywood career and pages of URLs pointing to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), another product of this genuine American dark genius. (HHMI does basic, genetic, and biomedical research and awards grants. Taken together, it’s one of the largest philanthropies in the world.)

The Final Irony

“The idea of rebranding goes back to the ’80s,” said Richard Dori, PR director for Hughes these past 19 years. The defense budget had begun to plateau, and Hughes began to look at bolstering commercial operations. GM brought in Mike Armstrong in ’92 to head up Hughes Aircraft Corporation. It was dramatic. Mike was identified with the PC program at IBM, and it was the first time anyone outside the company ran Hughes.

“We were engaged in a dual industry change, moving out of defense into the digital communications industry, and Mike was our spokesperson. The company had already formulated DirecTV (currently the great majority of revenues for the company). We sold our defense electronic operations to Raytheon, and this year sold our satellite manufacturing business to Boeing. With that out of the way, we rolled out our new branding program — Hughes as a pure play digital communications company — ads, logo, and publicity on October 23.”

Rebranding, in the works for 10 months, was not exactly a hard news story. The details were given to the Times in advance so the column outlining the history could break the same day as the official press release announcing the campaign.

If the objective was to change perceptions of Hughes from a defense contractor to a broadband digital communications service provider, it may be working. In the current stock market environment, although Hughes is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, “investors have treated it as if it was part of the Nasdaq technology group,” says Dori, a little ruefully.

And as for that other brand selection process going on today, you know there’s still time to vote.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.