2008’s Hottest Brand

This edition of Brandscapes takes me back to the early days of my career when I worked as a radio news reporter.  Back in 1983 and 1984 the news was dominated by the Conservative and Liberal parties both selecting new leaders.

During those years I interviewed candidates, delegates and political pundits.  I pounded out countless stories on a manual typewriter (remember this was the mid 80s) and shared my observations on the air.  At the time I thought I was writing leadership stories.  But in hindsight, they were actually candidate branding stories.

From my perspective as a newsman turned branding consultant, here are my observations on 2008’s hottest brand.

And to U.S. readers of Brandscapes – Happy Thanksgiving!

The Meteoric Rise of Barrack Obama

2008 will be remembered as the year of the meteoric rise of Barrack Hussein Obama.  Back in January he was a first term U.S. Senator with an impossible dream.  His objective was to defeat frontrunner – and former White House resident – Hillary Clinton to secure the Democratic Party nomination, and then claim the presidency.

At the beginning of the year the candidate with the unusual, unappealing, and for some un-American name was known only to serious political junkies.  Now he is loved by many and known to all.  Following his convincing win over Republican John McCain earlier this month, he will be sworn in as President in mid January.

A Marketing Success Story

Obama’s rapid ascent to the world’s most important elected office is an impressive story of skillful campaigning and great marketing.  No matter what your ideological stripe – whether you see Obama as an inspiring source of hope, or an inexperienced, smooth-talking liberal – you can’t help but admire his branding savvy.

His campaign offers some important insights that can be leveraged by any brand.

The Importance of Being Different

Great brands are distinct.  They stand out from competitors.

On the ballot, Obama was running against McCain.  But the Democrats defined the true competitor as the Republican regime personified by the unpopular incumbent George W. Bush.  They even produced signs declaring “Bush McCain More of the Same.”

The Democrat strategy was for Obama to appear different than Bush.  It was an easy requirement to fulfill.  When you compare Obama with Bush, it is hard to imagine two less similar individuals.

Bush is a conservative.  Obama has the Senate’s most liberal voting record.  Bush is white.  Obama’s skin is black.

Bush was born into a political dynasty.  His grandfather was a Senator.  His father has one of the most impressive resumes imaginable – Congressman, United Nations Ambassador, CIA Director, Vice President and President.

Obama was born in obscurity and came from a broken home.  His father, a man he never really knew, was a foreign student from Kenya studying at the University of Hawaii.

Bush has a folksy and sometimes stilted speaking style.  Obama is a silk tongued orator.  Bush is given a rough ride by the press.  Obama is a media darling.

About the only thing they have in common is Harvard.  Bush has a Harvard MBA.  Obama graduated from the Harvard law school.

A key element of Obama’s success is the un-Bush-like nature of his brand.

How does your brand compare with competitors?  Is it widely different, or much the same?  What can you do to make your brand more distinct?

A Simple Powerful Message

Great brands tell a clear story in a few words.  Obama honed his message down to a single word – Change.  The message resonated with an American public dismayed by the status quo.

In the Democratic primaries voters wanted Obama’s “Change” more than Senator Clinton’s “Experience.”  In the Presidential election McCain presented a variety of messages, including “War Hero” and “Maverick.”  None of McCain’s messages was focused or strong enough to trump Obama’s “Change.”

Simple, powerful, on target messages usually win.

How about your brand?  Do you have a message as potent, focused and relevant as “Change?”

Relevance Is Indispensable

Relevance is indispensable for any brand to gain a devoted following.  Genuine relevance influences what a brand says, how it behaves and where it interacts with customers.

Obama’s relevance started with message, the promise of “Change.”  But it didn’t stop there.  Convinced that Marshall McLuhan was right and “the medium is the message” Obama dove headlong into social networking to reach young Internet savvy voters.

Social Media Strategy

In early 2007, Obama’s campaign recruited Facebook co-founder, 24 year old Chris Hughes, to the position of Online Organizing Guru.  Hughes’ strategy gave Obama a prominent presence on a host of social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn.  Text messaging was employed to contact hard-to-reach young voters.  Hughes also set up the my.BarackObama.com website which attracted 1.5 million account registrations.

The social media plan first gave Obama youthful relevance.  More importantly for his campaign, it rallied grass root support and drove individuals into groups and into action.  The my.BarackObama.com website fostered the formation of 35,000 community groups, the staging of 150,000 campaign events and a massive election day phone campaign to get out the vote.  It was also instrumental in Obama’s unprecedented fund raising success.

Obama’s social media campaign is a convincing example of the importance of relevance and the power of social networking.  What are you doing in the message you present and the media you employ to make your brand more relevant?

Focusing on Strengths

Every brand has strengths and weaknesses.  The best brands focus on strengths and try to keep weaknesses out of the limelight.

Obama followed this strategy flawlessly.  He is a smooth, charismatic and inspiring speaker when presenting from a prepared speech.  His detractors observe that he is not nearly as impressive in non-scripted situations.  So when the Republicans lobbied to change the format of the campaign debates to town hall meetings – where Obama’s off the cuff weakness would be exposed – Democrat officials dug in their heels.  To keep Obama in his strength zone, it was a change they were not willing to make.

Where does your brand present the best?  What can you do to help customers focus on your strengths?  What are your brand’s weaknesses?  How can you improve those areas?

Leveraging Other Brands

Brands are like teenagers.  They are known by the company they keep.  A sound strategy for up and comers is to leverage the reputation of respected, existing brands.

Obama received valuable support from some heavyweight brands at pivotal times in the campaign.  First it was Oprah endorsing Obama during his primary battles with Hillary Clinton.  Next the liberal godfather of the Democratic Party, Senator Ted Kennedy, weighed in behind Obama.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the first African American to serve as Secretary of State joined the Obama camp.  Republican Colin Powell, who was also Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War, threw his public support to Obama over McCain.

Endorsements from these influential brands boosted the value of the Obama brand.

What bigger name brands support your brand?  Retailers can leverage the brands of the products they sell.  Systems integrators can tap into the credibility of respected software companies.  What alliances can you form to boost your brand?

The Real Test

So far Obama has shown great skill in the advertising side of branding.  Less than a month before the election, Advertising Age named Obama its Marketer of the Year for 2008.

Advertising awards are nice.  But the real test of the Obama brand will be how well he performs in office.  Can he live up to expectations?  Great brands make promises and fulfill them.  Will Obama be able to deliver on his?

He takes office during very troubled times.  For the sake of the United States and the world economy, let’s hope Obama’s performance matches his promise.

And for the sake of your company’s future, make sure your performance matches your promise.