Barack Obama and Audacity of Marketing

Bold Strategy Challenging Traditional Assumptions Offers Up an Object Lesson

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NEW YORK ( -- Four years after delivering the speech called "The Audacity of Hope" that would launch him toward the White House, Barack Obama has become a case study in audacious marketing, an object lesson on why you should forget inherited notions of whom your audience can be.
Barack Obama eschewed the recent history of his party and instead invoked the approaches of great political brands of the past.
Barack Obama eschewed the recent history of his party and instead invoked the approaches of great political brands of the past. Credit: Tannen Maury

Every Joe the Marketer who has blogged on "Obama's Five Lessons for Brands" has hit on Mr. Obama's obvious communications successes, such as his messaging consistency, his cultivation of community, his recognition of the importance of a digital strategy and so on. But what most miss or underplay are the ways in which the Obama campaign demonstrated its boldness, the trait that happens to be the most important for anyone trying to build a brand now, in a chaotic time when many will be tempted to shelve innovation and creativity to take up defensive postures.

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The enduring creativity of his campaign won't be Shepard Fairey's artwork or Obama Girl's fandom gone wild. It will be his ability to reimagine who his audience, or his customers, could be. His win was in many ways about ditching doctrine and boldly plunging into places where most wouldn't necessarily expect the brand to work -- which is to say places such as Indiana -- and then winning them over.

There was, of course, every reason for Mr. Obama to avoid the strong headwinds his candidacy faced from its beginning and to attempt to sidle up to his party's nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. After all, he was running as a liberal black man with a Muslim-sounding name in what many poll-obsessed Democrats indicate is a center-right nation weary of fighting a pair of long, divisive wars in a Muslim-dominated region of the world. His own party's recent national electoral strategy was about nibbling around the edges, trying to steal off with the brass ring rather than make a big grab at it in broad daylight.

Mr. Obama eschewed that recent history and instead invoked the approaches of great political brands of the past. Using his strong rhetorical skills, he spoke with John F. Kennedy's vocabulary of change and renewal translated into a master narrative reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," all the while evincing Bill Clinton's talent for forging human connections. Even Ross Perot's imprint was felt in Mr. Obama's late-in-the-game prime-time infomercial shown in a seven-network roadblock, except this time the homely, big-eared, white guy crunching numbers was replaced with a handsome, big-eared, black guy delivering a much-more-appropriate-for-prime-time message.

Ground game
And at the same time Mr. Obama was building his brand with grand gestures, his campaign demonstrated an understanding of ground-level marketing strategies and tactics, everything from audience segmentation and database management to the creation and maintenance of online communities.

The result was a brand that was big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate-enough feel to inspire advocacy that raised funds at record-breaking, almost obscene levels and gave birth to a massive network of on-the-ground supporters who were so crucial in the get-out-the-vote effort that added incremental Democratic ballots.
Tips you can use
  • A brand can be transcendent.

  • Throw out your assumptions about who your customers are.

  • Big brands and loved brands are not mutually exclusive.

  • Never stop taking it to your competitor.
In media terms, that money allowed him to blast his message -- or messages -- on the airwaves in key states and outshout Mr. McCain, and to manufacture events such as that prime-time infomercial. On the operational side, it facilitated the ditching of the Democrats' let's-just-hope-we-can-win-Ohio strategy and allowed Mr. Obama to take the fight into Republican territory.

That was a big, bold departure from the previous, rather meek and defensive Democratic strategy that assumed red states couldn't be won. Rather than try, the doctrine held, it was better to create a narrow battlefield. In the end, Mr. Obama picked Republican strongholds such as Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia with the help of the networks he built in those places during the primary race.

Through it all, Mr. Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player.

Accident-prone opponent
It's safe to say that Coke would probably give up some of its secret formula for a Pepsi prone to as many missteps as John McCain. As recently as late September, it seemed the McCain campaign had momentum and Mr. Obama had lost his. But that all changed with the Republican candidate's mismanagement of the financial crisis, the failure of his negative attacks and the running aground of the selection of the base-friendly but inexperienced and gaffe-prone Sarah Palin as a running mate.

Mr. Obama could have sat back and watched his opponent thrash around and rest peacefully on polling data that was very favorable. Instead, in his audacious way, he continued to take it to Mr. McCain to the very end. Not only was there that 30-minute infomercial designed as a "closing argument," but Mr. Obama unleashed a red-state insurgency.

On Election Day, both candidates broke with tradition and continued to stump. Mr. Obama went to the blood-red state of Indiana, a bastion of Midwest conservatism. It looked like a Hail Mary thrown by a quarterback who already had the lead, an insignificant toss that surely wouldn't result in many votes -- except that it did. On Nov. 4, 2008, Indiana went to a Democrat for the first time in 44 years
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