In this issue
A political phenomenon
|Barack Obama has emerged not just as the Democratic nominee for US president but as an icon of 21st century brand management, writes Richard Delevan|
Normally the truly hip denizens of adland heap scorn on political campaigns and their ham-fisted marketing tactics - and with good reason. Normally those tactics are pantomime versions of marketing tactics that were trendy in selling fast-moving consumer goods five years before the year's election cycle.
It was 40 years ago that journalist Joe McGinnis wrote The Selling of the President, his access-all-areas account of how the team around Richard Nixon sold him like a brand of cigarettes. Before 1968, this would have been a scandalous idea. But after the assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, why wouldn't you sell a politician like you'd sell soap? At least you'd have the illusion of feeling clean afterwards.
After four decades it would take a lot for a hot ad agency on a different continent to think it might have something to learn from a US political campaign. Which is why when I learned that Jimmy Murphy's team at The Hive had decided to rip off a YouTube phenomenon, user-generated video for Barack Obama, I was intrigued.
Murphy was preparing to present credentials to a business bank seeking to target entrepreneurs, trying to reflect the idea that risk takers must often persevere against accepted wisdom, ignore the market and believe in their idea.
Murphy had for many years had what he calls an "armchair interest" in US politics, had read Obama's memoir, Dreams of My Father, and quite liked his politics. Then he saw the ‘Yes, We Can' video, which, if you haven't seen, is either inspiring or slightly over-the-top and fascistic in its devotion to its candidate's mantra.
Shot in black and white, featuring will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, actress Scarlett Johansson and other Obama supporting celebrities, it's a mash-up with the speech Obama delivered on the night of the New Hampshire primary.
Murphy saw the video and it resonated. "You have to see this piece", some American friends wrote as they passed on a link to the YouTube video, which, at the time of writing, had been seen nearly 15 million times. "It really reflected the kind of mentality we're talking about. Here we are, on the periphery of Europe, but in the last ten to 15 years we've been going out there, taking on the world," Murphy said.
So he and his Hive colleagues did their own version of the ‘Yes, We Can' video and presented it to the bank. The creds pitch is one of the most striking examples of how the Obama phenomenon has influenced an agency, but Brand Obama and the tactics that have gone into its creation have been a source of buzz among the creative classes on both sides of the Atlantic since last year.
Cover stories in business bibles like Fast Company, focusing on Obama's highly effective Web 2.0 social networking strategy, Ad Age writing meaty features about the campaign's visual language, a shocking number of articles following an NPR On the Media feature about the cool, sleek, sans serif typeface used by Obama.
Barack Obama's strategy of going for donors making an average gift of under $100, paid big dividends. In contrast, Hillary Clinton relied on big donations for her campaign, cultivated through her husband Bill's two terms in the White House.
It's called Gotham, derived from hand-painted signs in New York in the 1940s, originally developed a few years ago for GQ magazine. For her campaign, Clinton favoured a clunky serif font that is a throwback to the early 1980s.
"Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand," Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, told Fast Company. "New, different, and attractive. That's as good as it gets." Even if it hasn't attracted more imitators, the US election campaign has certainly attracted fans in Irish adland.
Pearse McCaughey of Cawley NeaTBWA, who has worked on Fianna Fail campaigns in the past, said it was the most exciting race he has ever seen and he has been fascinated by proceedings since the hustings got underway.
Perhaps even more impressive for the new media-savvy creative director has been the Obama campaign's matching of tactics to audience. "Obama is probably the first real contender who's actually managed to understand new media - now media - and used that very effectively," McCaughey said. "He's understood the power of the internet, the power of texts. To raise money, to get people out to vote."
"He understands that an awful lot of his audience is defining themselves by how they use these tools - ‘my time on Facebook, my relationship with my Blackberry'. With me it's a tool at the most. It's an irritation I can't wait to turn off. A generation below me they're essential to who they are, staying in contact with friends and relatives. He understood that, and it's resulted in his success - especially at raising money."
Perhaps it is this that has so many twittering. Obama has raised more money than any other candidate in history, from more donors than any candidate in history - over 1.5 million donors - with an average donation below $100. It has given him a decisive advantage over Clinton, who has relied on big donors cultivated through her husband's two terms in the White House, many giving the legal maximum.
Obama is a walking case study for Chris Anderson's internet economics theory, The Long Tail - which argued that the internet transforms previously uneconomic niche products into profitable winners. Obama has done this in three ways, tapping so many small donors with virtually zero cost of sales, efficiently harnessing the energy of so many volunteers, and even turning enough victories in small states ignored by his opponent into a majority.
The fundraising success itself is owed in no small measure to tactics that build a brand community as part of the experience. Breaking with lifelong tradition of taking money from candidates rather than giving to them, I donated to the Obama campaign. Within minutes, I received an email telling me the name of a person in Georgia who had matched my donation and offered to put me in email contact with my matching donor, who then emailed herself to thank me personally.
A couple of days later I was solicited by email asking if I'd match someone else for the same amount I'd already given and if my email could be given to the new donor. Multiply by one million and you get the idea.
Obama's strongest support has come from the 18-29 age cohort, called Millennials. The online savvy is due largely to Chris Hughes, 24, who just four years ago was at Harvard University helping his roommate, Mark Zuckerberg, launch Facebook.
Hughes was an early volunteer on the Obama campaign and helped develop their web strategy, including the campaign's social networking website. But much like patterns of traffic on the web itself, enthusiasm for Obama seems to come in waves.
If his brand was initially positioned as a post-racial, transcendent figure, as the contest with Clinton has ground on, it subjected his brand values to severe stress. The re-emergence of his controversial ex-pastor Jeremiah Wright plus his electoral weakness among the sort of West Virginia folk Clinton described as "hard-working Americans, white Americans" cast some doubts.
It brings into sharp relief the half-whispered question of the 2008 campaign, "Is America really ready for a black president?"
Stuart Fogarty of McConnells acknowledges Obama's strengths but wonders if they are enough, or as authentic as they seem. "Sometimes a politician will tap into a mood for commercial purposes, to get elected," Fogarty said, "When they sense a mood, a shift in consumer behaviour, an appetite for change, they go for it.
Barack Obama during a debate with Hillary Clinton. Like Apple Mac, Obama is perceived as the challenger brand attracting a niche market while Clinton is seen as the old-style, dogged and ruthless rival
"Barack is a slogan, an attention-grabber. Barack talks about change, but it's slogan not substance. He's very packaged, very advertising. I don't think there's a lot to him. He's intended to be emotional rather than functional. He's a brand."
McCaughey agrees to an extent but draws a different conclusion. "No, he's not appealing on rationally, it's really projecting a brand. It probably owes more to being built on social networks, more bottom up than top down." In McCaughey's tentative view, that makes Obama stronger.
If there is a brand battle that serves as a good analogy for the Obama v Clinton phase of the campaign, it is usually compared to Mac v the PC. Obama, the cool challenger brand, attracting a powerful niche customer base, versus the old-fashioned, relentless and ruthless incumbent. Obama fans tend to flinch at the comparison. Mac, after all, has a tiny percentage of the market by comparison.
If Obama does enter the White House next year, it may well be because his campaign's brand-building, especially online, has managed either to overcome reservations among some white voters about a black president, or to assemble a coalition of niche audience segments who do not share that concern.
But the sort of euphoric optimism that the Obama brand generated in its early phase certainly doesn't win over all it touches. In the end, the business bank to which The Hive presented its ‘Yes, We Can' creds decided to go elsewhere.
"We got some feedback from someone in the room," said Murphy. "One of the clients, after we left, said, ‘that's all great and everything, but it's a little wide-eyed and fluffy. Too naive for the real world? It's a bit like asking us to buy a Mac."
Murphy is undeterred. He thinks the optimistic tone may well resonate with another prospect. If Obama wins in November, optimism itself may make a comeback.
Richard Delevan (email@example.com) is a journalist and consultant, www.richarddelevan.com