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Brand Management

For President Obama, A Lesson In Brand Building



The campaign that won Barack Obama the Presidency is often likened to a ‘master class’ in brand and marketing strategyThere were logos, slogans, ads, and emotions, all in service of an overarching promise of hope and change.  But lately, Obama’s brand has taken a major hit.  From his detractors, we hear familiar accusations of socialism and choruses of “I told you so.”  And from his supporters, we hear pangs of regret and disappointment.  Somehow, a focused campaign that inspired millions has given birth to a brand that is unclear, unpopular, and ineffective.

Just as the best brands in the world gain inspiration from categories far removed from their own (Method co-founder Eric Ryan visits furniture trade shows in Paris and Tokyo for design inspiration), President Obama should step outside the boundaries of politics and look to businesses to understand how to resuscitate his brand.

In this weekend’s New York Times, neuroscientist and political consultant Drew Westen diagnoses several potential causes of Obama’s decline.  One shift Westen points out is the President’s lack of passionate storytelling.  Instead of using the universal language of story to simplify complex issues and reframe endless political bickering into clear moral and ethical narratives, the President continues to speak in dry, character-less platitudes.  Here, Obama can learn from brands as diverse as Jack Daniels and Chanel.  These brands were, from the start, grounded in rich myths and stories that link intangible entities to tangible eras, people, and places, be they rebels in the deep South or fashionistas in turn-of-the-century Paris.  Through stories, people – be they ‘consumers’ or ‘voters’ – are able to connect to abstract concepts, but also to other people with whom the stories resonate.  From shared stories spring tight-knit communities (think Harley Davidson), but as this Presidency has shown us, story-less leadership can just as quickly dilute and disintegrate the inspired communities that brands (and nations) need to survive.

The absence of storytelling is closely related to another shortfall that Westen points out in his article: the President’s over-willingness to please everybody.  Though Obama’s quest for consensus and compromise is in many ways admirable, it has also come at the expense of any sort of clear, bold, point of view.  By trying to find common ground with all parties, Obama has lost himself.  What the best and most valuable brands in the world show us is that, not only it is ok to be polarizing and non-universal, but it is also desirable.  If you are polarizing, it probably means you know who you are, what you stand for, and who your most ardent followers are.  You don’t waste time trying to inauthentically satisfy those who have absolutely no connection to your brand values and instead work tirelessly to add value to the lives of those who do.

At the same time as Dove has taken a stand that invites women to embrace their natural beauty, a brand like Olay reminds them that beauty takes work. While Apple celebrates all things cool and high in design, Microsoft strives to relate to the average, quirky Joe for whom Apple is elitist and intimidating.  And in what is perhaps the most self-confident advertising campaign of all time, Miracle Whip greets lovers and haters alike with open arms.  None of these brands are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they just are who they are.

For Obama, the lesson here is that he must find himself and his point of view before trying to please anybody else. Collectively, the brands I have described probably cover a large portion of the U.S.’s (if not the world’s) population, but notice how no single brand tries to appeal to the entire population on its own – doing so would likely lead to consumer confusion, a loss of focus, and diluted brand equity. Can anyone imagine a company like Apple asking for consumer permission to introduce a new product or launch a new innovation?  When you know who you are and what you stand for, your story practically writes itself.  If Obama takes the time to look inward and rediscover the purpose of his campaign and his Presidency, it will become clear which policies he must support, which decisions he must make, and which stories he must tell.  His point of view will no doubt alienate some, but judging by his dismal approval rating, it’s clear that having no point of view (or a generic one) is a far worse situation to be in.

For those who doubt that this kind of philosophy could ever permeate an institution as large, complex, and entrenched as the U.S. government, we can once again look to an inter-category example for inspiration.  There has been much debate about whether Procter & Gambles viral Old Spice campaign has had any sustainable impact on sales or equity, but in my mind, the importance of that campaign transcends any ROI calculation.  As Andrew McMains notes in his Adweek article, it was the seismic shift in internal processes and behaviors leading up to that campaign that should be recognized.

In the spirit of Old Spice’s point of view – celebrating ‘male confidence and savoir faire’ – P&G temporarily walked away from its rigorous ad testing procedures that ensured safe, universally-pleasing ads and instead took a creative, risky, and intuitive approach to bringing the “The man your man could smell like” campaign to life. The ads certainly didn’t please everyone, but they brought a dying brand back to life, generated extraordinary buzz and industry recognition, and proved that even a 170-year-old, 80-billion-dollar company could benefit from looking inward, telling memorable stories, and embracing the reality that it can’t always please everybody. Only when Barack Obama does the same will he be the ‘President we knew he could be like.’

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Eric Tsytsylin, Millward Brown Optimor

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Dr. Darren Coleman on August 08th, 2011 said

Excellent post on two levels. Stories enable us to relate to abstraction and a the more fundamental marketing truth – you can’t be all things to all people or you’ll be nothing to anyone!

thomson dawson
Twitter: thomsonwhc
on August 08th, 2011 said

Great article! The brand examples used frame up the source of Obama’s trouble… he has lost his tribe. He has no clear target to aim his message at.

In the recent weeks he has demonized “private jet owners and big oil companies” as tax cheats. Yet he invites the same crew to his big birthday bash fund-raiser. Cash is king.

The hypocrisy of all politicians destroys their “brand value”.

Mr. Obama has failed his own “positioning” that so brilliantly won his election. In my opinion, this will be fatal to his re-election.

Derrick Daye on August 08th, 2011 said

Eric eloquently points out some of the fundamentals of successful brand strategy – define your brand and then consistently deliver on your brand promise. I think what’s unique to brands in the political space is that your competition has the capability and intent of blocking you from delivering on that promise. Change vs. No Change. Change while desperately needed and a popular notion is hard. That’s why the future often looks much like the past.

– Derrick

Chris Wojda on August 10th, 2011 said

The biggest mistake about the Obama brand is the understanding of what a brand is. His campaign was just that – a campaign. His brand is entirely something different. Perhaps he never had a brand when all of the hoopla around the Obama masterclass in branding began? He was so young and so new to everyone when this whole fiasco began that nobody knew anything about him except that he gave one good speech a few years back. You can’t just say you have a brand… people have to feel it and be familiar with it for longer than a moment. Three years into it, we’re all feeling his brand (he really has one now)… and unfortunately most of us don’t seem to like it.

Matt Likins on August 10th, 2011 said

I’m a business owner who comes here for some marketing wisdom. What I see as Obama’s failure has more to do with his substance than his style – he won over the masses with grand promises that doomed him to failure. Everyone took “Hope and Change” to mean something unique to them – great so far, but then when no one actually got the hope and change that they envisioned they have been left disillusioned. His detractors can say “we told you so” because he is what we thought he was, and his supporters are left wondering why they didn’t get what they were promised. I learned early that you should never promise what you can’t (or won’t) deliver; there’s nothing worse than getting everyone into your business and then have them leave upset. No marketing guru can fix that.

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