Rebranding. Every company does it. From a new look to its logo to an entirely different image, companies do it to stay competitive and fresh. Subway is rebranding after the Jared Fogle case. They and other companies might want to take a page out of the master of rebranding – Richard Nixon.
Richard Nixon is of course remembered for Watergate. Yet he was actually the master of rebranding. Each election there was a new Nixon that the media and public would buy into. And with that new Nixon brand, he was able to overcome some of the best – Earl Warren, Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan, George Romney, and even battle Jack Kennedy to a draw (or based upon who you believe defeat him).
Richard Nixon began his career as a hard-hitting anti-Communist crusader. Adlai Stevenson described him as a “white collar Joe McCarthy”. Dwight Eisenhower used him as vice president as an attack dog and to appease the hard right of the Republican Party. But he was also seen as a fresh and younger face for Republicans in 1952 even though most of the country knew of him for exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. In marketing his youth he drew a sharp contrast to his two California rivals who also wanted to be on the ticket with Eisenhower – Earl Warren and William Knowland. Key lessons for brands from this – when rebranding something familiar make it appear new and fresh.
During the 1952 campaign, Nixon was caught in the so-called ‘fund crisis’ where it was revealed that wealthy donors had paid for his travel expenses (which was not illegal). The media and Democrats called for Nixon’s removal from the ticket. Eisenhower remained silent on Nixon’s status and suggested Nixon address the nation. So Nixon with the backing of the Republican National Committee went on television (still in its infancy) and revealed his finances, showing that he was like most Americans, a person of modest means, revealing that Eisenhower’s opponent, Adlai Stevenson also had a fund like his, and concluding with a reference to the dog Checkers that his children had received from a backer and he would not return. The public went wild with support of Nixon. Eisenhower was forced to keep Nixon on the ticket and Stevenson was forced to reveal everything about his fund. Overnight, Nixon became the average American compared to the image that many had of Republicans – the rich uncaring businessman. Nixon knew his audience and appealed to it. Any business rebranding needs to know its target audience and how to appeal to it when rebranding.
After Eisenhower was re-elected president in 1956 with Nixon as vice president, many thought Nixon was unelectable in own right in 1960, as he was seen as too mean and that Republicans might need to nominate someone like Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon set out to prove them wrong. He turned down his rhetoric but even more importantly made himself relevant. He interjected himself into attempts to pass a civil rights bill that led many reporters to consider him a statesman. Then there was the famous kitchen debate where he debated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev where he was viewed by many as standing up for America. In 1958, with Eisenhower unwilling to campaign for Republicans, Nixon took up the role and appeared as the good Republican endorsing Republicans of all stripes while his emerging rival, Nelson Rockefeller did everything possible to avoid fellow Republicans. Key lesson from this rebrand – make sure that rebranding is tied into relevancy that will make it appear authentic.
Once nominated in 1960, Nixon faced the charismatic Jack Kennedy who was everything Nixon wasn’t – handsome, rich, elegant, eloquent, and Ivy League educated. In the first Nixon and Kennedy debate, Kennedy was declared the winner and even though Nixon battled back in subsequent debates the media believed Kennedy was a lock. Yet on election day, Nixon battled Kennedy to a basic draw (or if tales of the dead voting in Chicago and Texas are true defeated Kennedy). He did this by appealing to voters as who he really was – one of them, not the son of a rich former ambassador (Kennedy) but the son of a grocer who had worked his entire life. And voters believed him. Brands need to remember to be authentic when rebranding.
After losing to Kennedy in 1960, Nixon also lost the governorship of California in 1962 and famously declared to the media, “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore”. The media wrote his political obituary. Yet Nixon began work on his comeback. He did this by making himself available to the media. No reporter was too small nor question too inane for him during his so-called ‘wilderness years’. He appeared open and transparent. He cultivated the image of an elder statesman and in a polarized nation someone solidly in the middle. The media declared a new Nixon yet again. The public believed it allowing him to defeat Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and even Ronald Reagan for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination and then liberal giant Hubert Humphrey in the general election. Transparency and openness as shown by this Nixon rebranding are a key component for any rebranding.
Even after Watergate, Nixon continued to rebrand himself and the media and public continued to buy it. He was a mater at rebranding and offers lessons that companies can learn from to this day.