Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thoughts on the Obama brand

I'm not in the advertising or marketing industry, but I do have a few thoughts on the Obama brand. Below is my take on the history and future of the brand.
Barack Obama's message of "Change" is one of the most successful examples of branding in political history. It was made possible by the intersection of pent up demand in the marketplace and an efficient and effective supplier.
On the demand side we had a nation that has had 8 years of extremely poor leadership and had an obvious need for new direction. The desire for change is at historic highs, as evidenced by the lowest ever favorability rating for a siting president and a "wrong track" trendline of between 73%-91% this year, according to Gallup.
On the supply side we have a man who differences are obvious. His political affiliation, beliefs, intellectual approach, tone of campaign, middle class origin, name, and of course, color are diametric opposites to the previous leadership. He literally embodies change. With Obama, the medium is indeed the message. Obama is more than just a brand, of course. He also happens to be one of the most stirring orators in our history, and also is one of the most skilled politicians in recent memory. But the steady message of change from a man perceived to be able to effect change was extremely powerful.
The success of this branding became more and more apparent when Obama's two main rivals attempted to co-opt the "Change" message. Hillary Clinton used two slogans, "Change we Need" and "Working for Change", to little avail. And of course McCain's "Change We Can Believe In" was also rejected by the voters. But here is another reason why this brand was so effective. Because Obama had relatively little experience on the national stage, his brand turned this weakness into a strength. Unlike Hillary and McCain, he had very little record to run against. He was new, unscarred, somehow purer. People did not have as much of an idea of how he would lead based on his past record compared to the other candidates. But because their desire for change outweighed their fear of failure, voters embraced his message.
The McCain team attempted to rebrand Obama, shifting "Change" to "the Other" with their "Do we really know who Obama is" meme. This allowed internet rumors to flourish (Is he a US citizen? Secretly Islamic? Radical? Terrorist? Curiously, they skipped "Liberal?" and went right to "Socialist?") without having to take responsibility for the absurdity of their claims.
McCain, or to be more precise, McCain's advisers, attempted one last play to co-opt the change brand with the selection of Sarah Palin. Here was a funhouse mirror reflection of Obama. She symbolized change in that she is a woman and a relative unknown, but was an uber-conservative anti-intellectual who espoused views that no major party nominee for nationwide office has backed for thirty years. She was colloquial. Familiar and different at the same time. Only the Republican true believers bought into this brand.
So what is the future for the Obama change brand? Barack Obama has built up an enormous reservoir of political capital through his shrewd use of his brand. Because the economic crisis has blurred the traditional roles of Republicans and Democrats, the opposition is amorphous and undefined. The biggest threat to the Obama change mandate may well be Democrats who refuse to release long held protections of regional constituencies. Different coalitions between Republicans and Democrats will form in an attempt to block reform in different sectors. For example, how far are Senate Democrats from oil and gas producing states willing to go to reform those industries? If their past voting record is any indication it won't be very far.
However, if Obama can take the initiative and be seen as successful in the opening months of his presidency, his mandate for change will be almost unprecedented. He will truly have a chance to place his presidency beside that of Lincoln and FDR. Now that's change I can believe in.