Barack Obama

Adaptable Team Stays on Message While Using Social Networking to Build Voter Roles

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Detractors may mock Barack Obama these days as a celebrity, a candidate who promises little more than vague abstractions such as "hope" and "change." But no one should forget that he usurped the inevitable Clinton machine and has been considered the man to beat in this election.

Not too shabby for an African-American, first-term Democratic senator from Illinois (with the funny-sounding name) who was considered a long shot when Election 2008 got off to an early start back in 2006.

Barack Obama and David Axelrod
Photo: Jason Reed
EYES ON THE PRIZE: Barack Obama and chief strategist David Axelrod never lose sight of a consistent message.
How did he do it? The first step was taking the lessons learned from the Howard Dean campaign four years ago and turning them into internet-based fundraising that stunned Democrats and Republicans alike. In the most obvious example of what happened, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who thought that by sewing up the party's biggest fundraisers she had closed out rivals, found not only that it didn't matter but that the old way of raising money couldn't compete with the new way.

That new way didn't simply use e-mail to complement direct mail and other old-fashioned methods. The Obama campaign tapped into the latest developments of social networking. It hired Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook. What the team ended up creating wasn't simply a way to earn more money from small donors than previously thought possible; it created an Obama-specific network that took advantage of and built upon the movement-like quality of the Obama campaign. By the time other candidates on either side of the aisle got around to copying, they were too late to the party.

The website itself was a rarity for political campaigns, says Brian Collins, founder of experiential-branding firm Collins. "On one hand, it's intimate. The language is informal. Personal. It has an inviting, matter-of-fact appeal," he says. "On the other hand, it looks like it has scale -- and momentum. It's instantly appealing. ... By contrast, [John] McCain's site looks like a 1988 Sears circular."

of Barack Obama's online traffic in August came from paid search
Amount the Obama campaign spends daily on ads, almost double what McCain spends
How did all of that pay off? In July alone, the Obama campaign raised $51 million. More than 65,000 new donors contributed. His fund-raising prowess has allowed him to forgo public funding for the general election and will likely allow him to easily outspend Mr. McCain.

Mr. Obama didn't raise all that money and vault to the top just because he's a decent public speaker or because of a snazzy web application. He's had some help from his opponents and help from his team.

His campaign team has had a firm grasp of branding, messaging and old-fashioned political ground organization. It's also been able to balance mass marketing with social media and niche marketing. Mr. Obama's team is led by chief strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe, both from agency AKP&D Message and Media. Mr. Axelrod, along with veteran GMMB strategist Jim Margolis, have headed the ad team. After locking up the primary campaign, Team Obama also enlisted a stable of agencies including Murphy Putnam Media, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, Shorr Johnson Mag-nus, Dixon Davis Media and SS&K.

Message across many platforms
The campaign's "remarkable consistency is the real accomplishment," Mr. Collins says. "Across towns, counties, states -- and with thousands of volunteers, no less -- across multiple media platforms, they've managed to drive a potent, single-minded design and messaging coherence that should shame many national brands. I mean, this is close to a level of design strategy from a great brand like Nike or Target." (Perhaps not so coincidentally, one of the first applications available for the new iPhone this past summer was an Obama-themed "Countdown for Change" calendar.)

The team has also gotten a boost from the kind of consumer-generated media that mainstream marketers would die for. In fact, much of this consumer-generated material has been produced by professionals. When entertainer put together a music video featuring celebrities reading an Obama speech, it climbed to the top of YouTube and sat there.

None of that is to discredit the candidate himself and the cool factor that's built up about him. Those celebrities may seem like a liability at times, but you can bet that the Republicans wouldn't be making such a big issue of "celebrity" if their party had a few hundred A-listers (as opposed to a handful of B-, C- and D-listers) eager to get the word out. And the Obama campaign hasn't been shy about appropriating outside work when it fits in with the overall branding. Case in point: After artist Shepard Fairey did a few pro-Obama pieces, the Obama team reached out to the artist.

Much of that celebrity isn't so much old-school Hollywood liberalism as much as it is youthful enthusiasm. And there, too, Mr. Obama has been able to do something Mr. Dean couldn't quite do in 2004 -- get the youth vote (as well as new voters) to actually turn up at the polls. According to Mr. Plouffe, two-thirds of those caucusing for Mr. Obama in Iowa had never caucused before.

And while the design and the cool factor and celebrity get a lot of the credit, ground organization -- the political world's version of word-of-mouth marketing -- has played a key role. Consider the use of Invesco Field in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Many focused on the visual trappings of the event. Even some Democrats worried that the venue made the candidate seem egotistical and could reinforce the image of Mr. Obama's supporters as fanatics. But one of Mr. Plouffe's key concerns was the 20,000-25,000 Colorado voters who attended the event -- people who'd agreed to organize in the state for Mr. Obama's presidential campaign.

And the Invesco Field event was seen as a good way to make strong inroads in Colorado. (It was also a good way to break TV viewing records, which, of course, were broken again one week later by Mr. McCain.)

Steady hand
Ultimately, like many a No. 1 brand, the Obama campaign simply acts like it's the category leader. One of the hallmarks of the Obama campaign is that it just doesn't panic. Faced with PR nightmares such as Jeremiah Wright and Mr. Obama's own remarks about bitter rural voters who cling to guns and religion, the candidate didn't stumble over himself to rush out an apology. He set the pace and stuck to it.

At times, it's led to the candidate seeming stubborn -- as with his reluctance to say anything positive about the surge in Iraq and the camp's insistence on sticking to a "More of the same" tagline painting John McCain as a George W. Bush clone despite focus groups and polling numbers indicating that swing voters weren't buying the claim.

But in the past few weeks, the slow, methodical approach has seemed to pay off. While Team McCain threw up ad after ad and tried to carve out a position during the financial crisis, Team Obama seemed to move at a slower pace, content to let Mr. McCain flail and then use his own words against him. Indeed, as the economy melted down and Mr. McCain's ad messaging went 100% negative, the Obama campaign's decision to hang onto the "More of the same" trope was starting to look like yet another piece of smart marketing.
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