QUICK, WHAT do you think when I mention Coca-Cola?

Maybe you think "soft drink." Or maybe "refreshment."

But maybe you also think of hydration, harmony and happiness. Perhaps visions of America come to mind, or thoughts of an earlier, simpler time. A longing for Santa and an old-fashioned Christmas with the family might even pop into your head.

The difference between your immediate thoughts and these deeper, more nuanced feelings and desires represent the difference between a mere product and a brand. And Coca-Cola is the world's most powerful brand.

There's a saying in advertising: Sales overnight, brands over time. It's pretty easy to make a sale, to sell a can of soda. It's much harder to create and solidify a brand.

John McCain is a brand. He's been on the public stage so long that his name, his image, his mannerisms and his pronouncements have taken hold.

Brand McCain conveys courage and durability. He's a war hero and a survivor, a fearless defender of his country. The brand also brings to mind images of independence and a fair share of eccentricities. He's a westerner, a maverick, a one-of-a-kind guy who likes to defy the odds.

And then there's the pitch for humility. McCain will remind you that he's an imperfect servant of his country - a servant who nonetheless seeks to lead. Embellishing the entire brand is the steady drumbeat of love of country. Call it patriotism.

We know brand McCain. We think we trust brand McCain. But we're not buying the product as much as we thought we would. That's because there's a tempting new product on the shelf called Obama.

Obama has shaken up the market. People are buying Obama. In fact, he's flying off the shelf. Everybody wants a piece of this new product. Everybody wants a taste of it.

But brand Obama is still defining itself. We know the brand promises a new experience, that it says it will deliver change and hope. It pledges a better life for everyone. And many of us feel good when we buy the product.

But we're not sure about the origins of the brand, and we wonder about its reliability, especially lately. What and who is this product connected to, and what is it really all about? Will it deliver satisfaction again and again, or falter and disappear like so many other trendy products?

For now, we're buying the Obama product, but we haven't bought into the brand.

And, for now, we're still buying into the McCain brand, but leaving the product on the shelves.

A brand is a recognized and accepted promise between a product or service and all of its publics. It's a pact between product and consumer. To brand something is to consistently and uniformly reinforce the branding promise through the relentless pursuit of a simple, clearly recognizable brand identity. This means staying on message and exercising constant discipline.

Branding is hard work. And real branding is what separates passing fads from genuine icons. It's the difference between fashion and style. Fashions come and go, but true style is constant.

Barack Obama is the consummate salesman. He can make the quick, stunning overnight sale. He's today's fashion. But can he build a brand?

John McCain is an established brand. He's got style. But can he update his product and hold off his hot new competitor in a changing market?

In the end, branding is all about making and keeping reasonable promises. The look, the feel, the taste of Coke is the same every time you bring a can or bottle to your lips. The pitch may be periodically tweaked and updated, but the product is always the same. The promise is kept.

Who will America turn to? Who will keep his promise?

The new product we think we want, or the trusted brand we think we know? *

Daniel A. Cirucci is a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State Abington. He blogs at dancirucci.blogspot.com.