A Branding & Marketing Genius

Ohio Elections Have Become A "Treat" for Republicans Thanks to Some "Tricks" Learned from Gov. James A. Rhodes

As the statewide Nov. 4 general election approaches, those of us in marketing and communications can’t help but observe the process for ideas that can inform our work. One need look no further than James A. Rhodes for his genius application of three simple branding and marketing principles: staying true to the brand, delivering the brand promise and, most importantly, results.

There are a number of reasons for the Republicans’ continuing success in Ohio, but an important one is the legacy of James A. Rhodes. He served 16 years (1962-70 and 1974-82) as Ohio governor (one of only six governors in U.S. history to serve so long). Rhodes was responsible in many ways for Ohio’s strong university and community college system, the extensive state park system, and Ohio’s position as a national logistics leader – thanks in part to his fanaticism for building just about anything – college campuses, highways, airports, prisons, bridges, etc. There’s hardly a city in Ohio that doesn’t have a building with Jim Rhode’s name on it. “Never build anything underground,” the governor would say, “because you don’t get credit for it.” And, he brought Honda to Ohio, an addition that has been the key driver of the state’s economy for decades.

Rhodes is the subject of a new biography by long-time friend and former colleague, veteran UPI and Columbus Dispatch Reporter Lee Leonard, and former Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporters Rick Zimmerman and Tom Diemer. The book, published by Kent State University Press, is appropriately named James A. Rhodes, Ohio Colossus. In addition to being an excellent history of the Rhodes era, it’s chockfull of anecdotes portraying Rhodes as the colorful character he was. It is somewhat ironic that the book is published by KSU Press since Rhodes’ legacy on a national level will forever be scarred by the Kent State tragedy where four students were killed by National Guardsmen during an anti-Vietnam War protest.

But in Ohio, Rhodes’ impact goes beyond that one dreadful event. Rhodes was born in the coal fields of southern Ohio and spent his youth concentrating on athletics not academics in Springfield before his widowed mother moved the family to Columbus, where he allegedly ran numbers for an illegal bookmaking operation while briefly attending The Ohio State University before dropping out. He could be crude — his off-color comments about some fellow politicians remain legendary among veteran politicos – but he could also be very kind, especially to children and those who shared the difficulties he had growing up poor in Appalachia.

His approach to politics was quite simple – “Jobs and Progress” became his mantra and he never wavered from it. He said if every Ohioan has “a job in one hand and a diploma in the other,” everything else would work itself out. He schooled a neophyte California governor named Ronald Reagan on how to win in Ohio and the Midwest and he later did the same for former U.S. Ambassador George H.W. Bush by removing his wallet from his pocket, slamming it on his desk, and saying, “This is what people want to talk about. They want to know if you are going to put money in or take money out.” Smart candidates listened. Reagan swept the state in 1980 and ’84, as Bush did in 1988 (although a Rhodes’ quip about Bush’s personality nearly helped derail his candidacy.)

He campaigned and governed from his gut. He had little use for what he called “ivory tower” folks and didn’t engage much in philosophical discussions, but he was a natural political marketing and branding genius. Those who have followed his single-minded focus on good jobs and low taxes have had great success. Those who meandered into social issues or found themselves on the wrong side of the economic debate (think of Mitt Romney and the “one percenters”) have floundered. Rhodes would surely smile at the campaign theme of current Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to coast to a second term Nov. 4, behind the simple slogan: “Kasich Works.”

It’s also unfortunate that candidates don’t follow another Rhodes’ pearl of wisdom. At his 90th birthday party in 1999, Rhodes said he was successful in getting things done because he was “never a hater. I never hated the people on the other side . . . You can’t hate. Next week, you might need something from that person. And, in politics, people have long memories.”

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