November 6, 2008

Copycats Beware: Obama from a Marketing Perspective

"That One"

Different is good. And one of the primary responsibilities of a marketer is to make sure your brand stands out from the competition — ideally in a good way. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Chrysler.)

So even though I’m a marketer and an ardent Obama supporter, I’ve been reluctant to write a Cool Rules Pronto post about Obama marketing, ’cause, well, it’s already been done — and done well:

Every marketer with a blog (which is probably 99.9% of all marketers) has expounded upon the brilliance of Obamarketing. Back in mid-October, Advertising Age crowned Obama “Marketer of the Year” (subscription required to read) based on a survey of its readers  — which would have looked awfully silly had Obama lost to McCain’s barking dog approach.

So I guess I’ll jump into the post-election analysis pool at risk of losing some personal differentiation points. But just to be annoyingly different, I’ll start with a warning…


“Best Practices” Aren’t For Everyone

I can see future candidates and campaign advisors taking notes from these articles on Obama, and hundreds of copycat campaigns in 2010. But guess what happens when everyone adopts “best practices”? I leave it to Dilbert to explain:

Dilbert 09/03/2008
More critically, what works for one person (or brand or company) won’t necessarily work for another. First of all, timing and context are absolutely critical. Karl Rove’s negative assault tactics worked brilliantly in 2000 and 2004, but his campaign for a “permanent Republican majority” didn’t exactly work out this year. And imagine Obama running for President while the stock market was high and the real estate market hot. Even he would have had to change tactics.

Marketing campaigns work because all the external and internal elements gel — and that includes elements that would be impossible for others to replicate. For example, let’s say Governor Bill Richardson decided to adopt Obama’s “best practices.” Richardson is a very likable and respectable politician with an ethnic background, he’s currently serving as a popular governor of a swing state, and he boasts both foreign policy credentials and “executive experience” (after this article, I promise to never use that worthless phrase again, even ironically). He could have adopted Obama’s campaign to the letter, but even with perfect execution, it’s extremely doubtful that Richardson could have drawn 100,000 people in St. Louis to hear him speak, or inspired thousands of others to wait 12 hours in line to vote for him.

So we could write a book about Obama’s marketing strategy, yet without that one magical element — Obama himself — all those “best practices” perfectly assembled could still amount to failure. Then all we bloggers would be calling them “bad practices.”

Now Here’s What I Like

OK, now that I’ve let my contrarian side vent — and without repeating too much of what those other esteemed and astute analysts have stated — here’s what I loved about Obama’s campaign from a marketing perspective:

1. Empowering Slogans and Chants: We’ve all heard how dead-on “Change” was, so much so that both Hillary and McCain tried to co-opt it. Even better was “Yes we can!” which was so pithy, so chant-able, so Nike. Compare that to McCain’s slogan: “Country First.” I understand that McCain was trying to draw a distinction between himself and Obama, and as I said, differentiation is critical. And let’s just assume that McCain was truly more country-oriented than Obama. The problem with “Country First” is that it doesn’t speak to the needs of potential voters — indeed, it’s lethally self-referential. Who out there losing their home or their job or their health insurance — or all of the above — is thinking “Country First”? Hell, Americans have been hearing the drumbeat of patriotism since 9/11, but now many would like a leader to think about their needs for a change (pun intended). Even worse, as conservative pundits like George Will and Andrew Sullivan pointed out, McCain’s cynically political pick of Palin put a lie to his own slogan. As for McCain’s rallies, the crowds chanted “John McCain” or “USA” or “Nobama” — hardly self-empowering. Yes, chanting is fun, but it’s even better when it resonates emotionally.

2. Distinctive Logo: The Obama “O” with the flag in the center was everywhere: on T-shirts, car bumpers, even Halloween Jack-o-lanterns. It joined Nike’s swoosh, Apple’s apple and religious symbols as popular icons — not bad company to have if you’re also trying to build a cult brand. You know your brand has hit it big when millions of ordinary people are putting your logo on their bumpers. Obama’s logo was original and distinctive, and most people seeing it knew what it stood for, even without Obama’s name written next to it. Compare that to McCain’s symbol, which was a star. Not exactly a winner in terms of creativity or brand identification. It looked nice and had a G.I. Joe flair to it, but it didn’t symbolize much of anything.

G.I. McCain's logo

G.I. McCain

Politics aside, Obama’s campaign won in the graphic design contest. BTW, my favorite use of the Obama logo was the post-debate “That One” manipulation by Andrew Sullivan pictured at the beginning of this post. And speaking of user-generated content…

3. Passionate Supporters as Salespeople: A marketing cliché states that your best salespeople are your own customers. That’s because consumers are more apt to believe other consumers than anything a company says about itself. While McCain certainly had ardent followers, they simply didn’t compare in numbers, passion or creativity to Obama’s fanbase — and I’m not talking about the paid ground teams and other volunteers. From will.i.am’s seminal video to my favorite, the Wassup guys (see below), Obama’s supporters dominated the world of user-generated content in both quantity and quality.

Everything put together, the key triumph of the Obama campaign is that it didn’t just sell a politician to the voters — it created a cultural movement that will be felt and discussed far beyond the marketing blogs and magazines. And that’s a marketer’s dream come true.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

One Response

  1. Thanks for mentioning the Responsible Marketing Blog here. Your comments are much appreciated.

    I love your take on this, especially the branding section. You also have me rethinking our promotion of marketing best practices, too.

    Keep up the great work, Freddy. Love your blog.

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