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The Marketing of the President 2008

BY Patrick Ruffini | Wednesday, February 13 2008

Watching Obamamania unfold over the last few days, I have gradually come to the realization that we are living through the first Presidential campaign that is being marketed like a high-end consumer brand.

Here's how.

Which one of these logos is not like the other? Even with the telltale red, white, and blue of the Obama logomark, the answer is none of them.

Watching Obamamania unfold over the last few days, I have gradually come to the realization that we are living through the first Presidential campaign that is being marketed like a high-end consumer brand.

The logo itself is a good jumping off point. The typical Presidential campaign logo usually features some variant of the stars and stripes. Beyond patriotism, they have no message. They are pretty much interchangeable between Republicans and Democrats.

Obama's logo rearranges these patriotic elements into an emblem that distills his message to the core: the hope of the sun rising [or, Republicans, is it setting?] over amber waves of grain, with the novelty of the candidate's unusual last name reinforced in an "O". Unlike virtually every political logo in history, this one doesn't shy away from the glows and gradients meant to give modern corporate logos realism and depth. And like good corporate logos, this logomark can be disaggregated from the candidate's name, in the same way that the swoosh instantly screams "Nike" or the circular logos of BMW and Mercedes spark instant associations with affluence and prestige.

This is not only the theory. It's the gameplan. Lately, most of Obama's signage doesn't say Obama.

The Obama campaign is not selling Obama. It is not selling a public figure with progressive political beliefs. It is selling Hope -- and Change. This is why distant historical references aside, it is deliberately difficult to find the politics in the Will.i.am video:

Most campaigns never get beyond talking issues. The sophisticated ones run on attributes in the foreground (cares about people like me) tied to issues in the background (a health care plan). The Obama effort seems to be something wholly different. The campaign and its marketing seems designed to evoke aspirational feelings that have virtually no political meaning whatsoever. This is what great brands do. They evoke feelings that have virtually zero connection to product attributes and specifications. As Alan M. Webber recently wrote in Fast Company:

Some categories may lend themselves to branding better than others, but anything is brandable. Nike, for example, is leveraging the deep emotional connection that people have with sports and fitness. With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people's lives, and that's our opportunity for emotional leverage. Almost any product offers an opportunity to create a frame of mind that's unique. Almost any product can transcend the boundaries of its narrow category.

Intel is a case study in branding. I doubt that most people who own a computer know what Intel processors do, how they work, or why they are superior to their competition in any substantive way. All they know is that they want to own a computer with "Intel inside." As a result, Andy Grove and his team sit today with a great product and a powerful brand.

And:

The common ground among companies that have built great brands is not just performance. They recognize that consumers live in an emotional world. Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions. Not many people sit around and discuss the benefits of encapsulated gas in the mid-sole of a basketball shoe or the advantages of the dynamic-fit system. They will talk about Michael Jordan's winning shot against Utah the other night -- and they'll experience the dreams and the aspirations and the awe that go with that last-second, game-winning shot.

A brand reaches out with that kind of powerful connecting experience. It's an emotional connection point that transcends the product. And transcending the product is the brand.

The end result is that great brands are fungible. They can be all things to all people. The branding approach liberates Obama to be the candidate of the MoveOn wing and of national unity. That's not a criticism. It is a compliment. Now we'll see if it stands up in the land beyond the energized core, in the land of 50% plus one nationally, where evangelism alone is not enough.

Obama literalists may read back chapter and verse on his policy initiatives, but let's be real here. Those aren't the reasons for his success. Morover, they were never intended to be the underpinnings of the Obama candidacy. Millions of "HOPE" and "CHANGE" placards later, I think that's fairly clear.

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