Obama logo

6 November 2008

Copycats Beware: Obama from a Marketing Perspective

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Proud Obama Supporter…

One of marketing’s primary responsibilities is to make your brand stand out from the competition — ideally in a good way. So even though I’m a marketer who supports Obama, I’ve hesitated to write about Obamarketing, because every other marketer with a blog (99.9% of all marketers) has already done so. Back in mid-October, Advertising Age crowned Obama “Marketer of the Year” based on a survey of its readers — which would have looked awfully silly had he lost to McCain’s barking dog approach.

But now that Obama won handily, I’ll jump into the post-election analysis pool at risk of losing 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 Obama, and hundreds of copycat campaigns appearing in 2010. But what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

First of all, timing and context are absolutely critical. Republican troll 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 amidst a booming economy. Even he would have had to change tactics.

Marketing campaigns work because all the external and internal elements gel — and that includes elements that others can’t replicate.

Imagine that Governor Bill Richardson had won the nomination. He’s a popular and respected Latino governor of a swing state, and he boasts both foreign policy credentials and “executive experience” (pardon the worthless phrase). He could have adopted Obama’s practices to the letter, but even with perfect execution, he would not have likely 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 the marketers would call them “bad practices.”

Now Here’s What I Like About Obama’s Marketing

OK, now that my contrarian side has vented, 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 tried to use his military background to distinguish himself from Obama. And let’s assume that McCain was truly more country-oriented than Obama. “Country First” still 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 the above — is thinking “Country First”? 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 the incompetent, self-serving Sarah 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

Obama logo

The Obama “O” with the flag in the center appeared everywhere: on T-shirts, car bumpers, even Halloween Jack-o-lanterns. It joined Nike’s swoosh and Apple’s apple as popular icons. You know your brand has hit big when millions of ordinary people paste your logo on their car bumpers. Obama’s logo looked 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: 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

3. Passionate Supporters as Salespeople

A marketing cliché states that your best salespeople are your own customers. That’s because consumers will believe other consumers over anything your 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 Obama campaign 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 graduate-level marketing communication courses 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.

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