Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama ≠ Brand

Obama a President not a brand I say?

The notion of Obama as a brand is sexy. Articles in Time, Newsweek, Fast Company, The Herald Tribune, AdAge and countless blogs including and have all found great stories in the similarities between Obama’s presidential campaign and the marketing world. Further, they offer insights into how his campaign may have valuable lessons for marketers!

The idea that political campaigns can be conceived of as brands is nothing new. Today, however, we seem to be more enchanted with this idea than ever. Probably because it feels clever, and arguably it is - Obama is after all the first presidential candidate we’ve had that had with his own logo (I don’t count Bush’s W for several reasons). Further, in a consumer oriented economy this logic is the zeitgeist of our era - during the industrial revolution everything was described in terms of how they were like machines - and it makes sense to frame things in this way.

But, campaigns are not quite marketing campaigns, and Obama is not exactly a brand himself either, and in the excitement I think that we tend to ignore where corporate brands and political campaigns do not line up. In my ongoing studies of the Obama campaign I’ve made some observations about the differences. Here are just a few.

First, what is being sold? Voting for president is a high involvement decision with a high, and unique cost. People have strong emotions about politics and a lot invested in the outcome of an election – we’re being sold the future not a jacket. Some people were looking to “buy” hope and change, but as much as Coke and Pepsi try they cannot promise the same national and even global return on these commodities that Obama could. Therefore soda has much more trouble getting people to invest strongly and deeply emotionally in their brands. Families don’t split on soda the same way they do about politics. Further, the cost of a vote is more intangible than money. We all have one, but only one. A coupon for Obama wouldn’t get a McCain supporter to “try it out.” Presidential candidates are a product category so removed from anything else that I’m not sure it’s a category at all.

Nike and Apple do not exist in a state of constant crisis communication. Campaigns fire back and forth every day over every medium. Moreover, the media discussed the events 24/7, bringing in surrogates and pundits to discuss image and policy issues for every news cycle. Corporate brands simply do not exist in the same information environment as politics, and therefore their communication strategies will no doubt need to be significantly different.

Finally, campaigns are made of multiple, interlocking, overlapping identities. First Obama’s identity was defined both by the combination of his campaign’s message and his party affiliation. After winning the nomination his identity changed once again as his context changed, he was the same product sure, but in the entirely new market of the general election – and was thus perceived differently. Then his choice of Joe Biden as the vice presidential nominee had a significant impact on his image (as Did Sarah Palin for John McCain). Further, endorsement of unions, fellow politicians and celebrities all added up to much more than 4 out of 5 doctors prefer Crest or Tiger Woods on a Wheaties box.

These ideas are still quite fluid for me and I’d welcome some outside perspectives on this (especially if they disagree). There are certainly many parallels between political campaigns and marketing, and they are quite valuable. Moreover, I believe there is a lot that the Obama “ahem” brand can offer to marketers in terms of insight. But, I think we need to be clear about the differences if we are to really learn from the comparison.


Jason said...

A friend of mine wrote me an e-mail responding to this post and what she said was so good, and so on the money that I wanted to post it here. I think she really nailed it and her ideas challenged my current point of view.

Obama himself is probably not a brand. But the image he reflects, the “myth” constructed around him, even without taking his “hope” and “change” message into account, has made him a brand. Apart from Kennedy, which president has become a legend so fast? His face is everywhere, on t-shirts and on our screensavers. He is a brand because he brings us what we want, according to what we’re looking for. This is probably why it is even harder to analyze him and the Obama product for there are politics involved, and people’s needs, and expectations. The aim of political campaign is to sell the candidate, convince people that he is fit for the job. So maybe voters could not try him out, but the very context of the campaign helped shape an idea of what both candidates could be like if they were in the oval office. The economic crisis was the turning point of the campaign. On September 15 exactly, opinion polls changed, McCain became overrun by Obama. The Obama brand was more suited for the challenge. People bought it more because all of a sudden the message fitted the situation perfectly.

Most successful brands have a history, something sentimental about them. Coke, Virgin, Starbucks… We know more about these products and the history of the company than just what is sold. It is part of our environment, we can make inside jokes about them. It is the same for Obama. At Starbucks, almost anybody can get the drink they want, their favorite. The Obama campaign managed to do the same, they targeted their audience, they targeted the young like it had hardly ever been done before, they specified their product using Of course, identity played a great part in the game. Obama helped a lot of people define themselves according to him, they were proud to be associated to the whole campaign. Why is that? Because it suits the idea of what they want to be considered like. Just as much as a brand gives you this satisfaction that you have chosen quality, that you made an investment. Young kids go through this phase in junior high and in high school where you have to have this brand for your backpack and you have to wear these shoes in order to be cool. I don’t think selfish reasons were the only motto for people to participate in his campaign, but the association with Obama and his logo validated the identity they wanted. I have an Obama sticker on my Mac, I see it everyday. Everywhere I go, I know people will see that sticker on my Mac, and I expect them to think I had something to do with him, I want this brand to show what side I was on, what values and principles I cherish.