Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Crying Game.


You just couldn’t escape it, for a day or two there. Played over and over on the television screen, Hillary Clinton in a New Hampshire coffee shop, on the edge of tears as she proclaimed how personally important this campaign was to her. For hours afterwards, though you can find scant evidence of it now, political ‘experts’ pronounced this a fatal error on her part, a show of weakness that no American could brook in a Chief Executive. Certainly, that’s how it went the last time a candidate wept during a New Hampshire primary; those same experts will tell you that a similar moment sunk Ed Muskie’s campaign in 1972. And Hillary was already in a bit of a hole after a narrow loss in Iowa.

And then she won New Hampshire.

The same experts jumped back into their pundit pants and caught the first bus back to CNN to claim that it was women who had carried the day for Hillary, which should win some kind of award for facile sexism. The more liberal press coolly characterized the teary moment as “humanizing.” Closer. But the prize goes to hubby Bill, who said simply of the people of New Hampshire, “People saw who she was.”

Indeed.

I think that voters in that moment had a choice, and it was a choice of interpretation: Hillary got choked up because she’s weak. Or, Hillary got choked up because she’s authentic. And what delighted me about the outcome were two things: One, that they picked door number two, and two, that the pundits were so fantastically wrong.

So it was ironic and interesting that, on that very same day at another coffee joint on the other side of the country, a kind of similar (work with me, here) drama was unfolding that had something to do with authenticity: The return of Howard Schultz to the CEO job at Starbucks. You don’t have to dig too deeply in his open letter to all of Starbucks employees to see that Howard is saying, ‘we screwed up’. Furthermore, you have to be struck by the fact that his prescription for fixing the problem isn’t some kind of Chainsaw Al, shoot-the-wounded, cut-our-way-to-success restructuring. Rather, he reckons, he needs to “transform the Starbucks experience.” He’s less concerned about the overexpansion of the chain and more concerned that it’s lost its soul in the process. And, as with Hillary, Howard claims it’s personal: “Twenty-five years ago, I walked into Starbucks' first store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and from that day forward we have taken the road less traveled, “ he begins his missive.

And then their stock price, which had halved over the previous year, rose by 9% in overnight trading.

It remains to be seen whether Starbucks will find its soul again and, with it, prosperity. It remains to be seen whether the oddly pierced, tattooed and dissociative dolts at my local Starbucks, despite my ordering the same thing every morning for the last three years, will deign to say hello to me, offer me my usual, or even look me in the eye, now that Howard has returned like Arthur to Camelot. And it remains to be seen whether Hillary’s verklempt moment is even remembered in the days and months ahead, never mind decisive. But I like the idea of living in a world where being real has more commercial value than being clever or aggressive does. Where a brand has to figure out what it stands for more urgently than it does its next tactic. Where we get to see who it really is.

I think Hillary really was choked up. I’m not sure about Howard. There is a faint whiff of crocodile tears in the way that emotional opening about Pike Place ends the selfsame paragraph with a bunch of chest thumping statistics about how big they’ve become. Muskie possibly lost New Hampshire in ’72 not because he wept, but because he denied it, claiming the tears were “melted snowflakes”. In the branding game, insincerity is much more dangerous than vulnerability.

Man, these pundit pants are getting a bit tight. Maybe I should switch to non-fat. I wonder if they’ll notice…

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