Obama’s Victory Offers Lessons to Marketers

Discussion
Nov 06, 2008

By
George Anderson

According
to the marketing strategist and bestselling author Al Ries, Nov. 4, 2008
will go down
“as the biggest day ever in the history of marketing.”

Barack
Obama, according to Mr. Ries, overcame the challenges from Hillary Clinton
and John McCain because his “change” marketing strategy was superior
to the various messages his opponents trotted out to counter his success.

The
President-elect succeeded, Mr. Ries wrote on AdAge.com, because
instead of going for the “big lie” he chose the “big truth” strategy.
This approach, he wrote, holds,
“If you tell the truth often enough and keep repeating it, the truth
gets bigger and bigger, creating an aura of legitimacy and authenticity.”

Finding
themselves faced with approaches that were gaining little traction with
voters, Senators Clinton and McCain sought to one-up Mr. Obama by, in effect,
suggesting they would “do change better” than he would. According
to Mr. Ries, “different” as a message works in marketing but
“better” never does.

He
identified three key lessons marketers should take from the Obama campaign.

  1. Simplicity – When 70 percent
    of the population thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction,
    change is a word they want to hear. Many marketers don’t use the word
    change because they think it is too simple and not clever enough.

  2. Consistency – Create a slogan
    grounded in the real world and repeat it over and over again. According
    to Mr. Ries, most companies don’t have the money, patience or vision
    to stick with one message. They’re looking for a walk-off grand slam
    when the game has just begun.

  3. Relevance – Mr. Obama’s
    unwavering commitment to the change message determined the discussion
    points for all the campaigns and took his opponents off their experience
    messages.

Discussion Question:
What lessons do you think marketers can learn from Barack Obama’s successful
campaign for the Presidency of the United States?

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27 Comments on "Obama’s Victory Offers Lessons to Marketers"


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Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
13 years 6 months ago

I think we should not overlook or underestimate the boatloads of money that were utilized by the Obama campaign to get the marketing message out (as compared to the opposition).

Gene Detroyer
Guest
13 years 6 months ago
In the early 80s I joined an international company headquartered in Amsterdam to run their U.S. Consumer Products Division. I bought 30 copies of Positioning: The Battle for the Mind by Reis & Trout, and handed them out to all the managers in my division and all those in my up reporting thread, including the Chairman of the company. Obviously I am a fan of Al Reis (and Jack Trout) and I believe they have written some of the very best books on marketing. From the way Obama campaign operated, one would think they read “The Battle for the Mind.” Not only was it simple, not only was it consistent, not only was it relevant, but it also was there first. Barak Obama staked the high ground–or top of the ladder–with the “Change” message and made it impossible for anyone to secure that ground from him. Now, in a consultative capacity, I still buy this book for colleagues and clients and I recommend “Positioning: The Battle for the Mind” for anyone who has the slightest… Read more »
Liz Crawford
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

I am not convinced that Obama’s appeal can be reduced this way. He is very, even wildly, charismatic. He not only advocates change, he embodies it.

In terms of messaging, I believe that his social networking communications worked more heavily in his favor than the three words listed above. Consumer-to-consumer or citizen-to-citizen advocacy was the covert tipping point for him. I believe that his campaign shows the power of social networking.

Dick Seesel
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

The Obama “brand” was “change” and it was pounded home consistently over many months. The McCain “brand” seemed to veer from day to day, and in particular took a turn around the GOP convention from “experience” to “maverick” (and back & forth several times). Forgetting about ideology and the appeal of one candidate vs. another, this is certainly a case study in effective branding and message discipline.

Jack Welch, the retired GE legend, made an additional comment yesterday on CNBC. Saying that the campaign would make a great case study for business schools, he mentioned that first Hillary Clinton and then John McCain pursued a “milk run” strategy of going after their base in a very predictable manner, while the Obama campaign decided to find new customers and new markets–so to speak. It worked.

Anne Howe
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

The strategy was indeed solid. The real solid one, in my opinion, is Al Ries, who is a master at “boiling it down” to the essence and articulating the summary so clearly. Maybe Al should be on the Obama communications team so we don’t get lost in the “movement” rhetoric for the next four years.

David Biernbaum
Guest
13 years 6 months ago
The “change” message orchestrated by the Obama marketing campaign was effective, and it was indeed simple, consistent, and it proved to have relevance with at least enough voters to accomplish the “purchase.” Therefore, I will buy in to the analogy to a degree, however unlike politics, the retail environment requires a more visual plan of action along the way where consumers can see the message being activated while they shop. All too often retailers and brands alike will make a simple promise then either not stick to it, or even worse, they do not execute the promise in a compelling enough way and then the promise becomes erroneous; some possible examples might include Kmart, Linens and Things, Sharper Image, etc. On the other hand Walmart makes its marketing message very simple, consistent, and relevant, and every consumer knows the message, believes the message, and a majority shop the message. To only a slightly lesser degree, I would argue Target has also accomplished the same but with a different message. What I would like to see… Read more »
Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
13 years 6 months ago

Ries makes some very valid points. However, what he did not touch on was the fact that the “truth” in any campaign is what people believe it to be. And repeating it over and over is key. After all, if people hear something often enough, then it must be true.

As well, Obama was able to create a message that, while simple, resonated with the American public. And this is probably the biggest reason people sided with him.

Finally, let’s not dismiss that according to most polls, people just liked Obama better than the other guy on a personal level. And no amount of marketing could change that.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

One plan, perfectly executed pays off. Veering from one idea to the next and saying we’re not like the others doesn’t work. A true brand knows what it is and what it is not. That’s what attracts people; not gimmicks or distractions.

Mike Romano
Guest
Mike Romano
13 years 6 months ago

The Obama machine used text messaging better that any other candidate in history.

From delivering daily updates to having his mobile users spread the word via viral mobile marketing, Obama managed to get his message out to 1 in 4 cell phones in the US. The McCain camp is still fumbling with his flip phone.

Retailers: you need to reach your constituency, or in your case, your customer, where they are. 96% of adults have a cell phone–retailers take note!

David Livingston
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

The sizzle sells the steak.

James Tenser
Guest
13 years 6 months ago
Great points above and in Ries’ article about the Obama campaign’s marketing strategy. Without diminishing their importance a whit, we may also wish to consider how team discipline contributed to his success. Several post-election commentators have remarked on the calm, orderly way in which the Obama campaign organization conducted itself, as compared with his rivals in both parties. Yes, they had a well-considered strategy, but they also had the tactical discipline to carry it off consistently, keep the team focused and positive, and build on early results. This is perhaps the most hopeful observation I can make about President-Elect Obama’s capacity to lead. His campaign was masterful, but not only in its marketing approach. It reflected a simultaneous command of multiple complex disciplines. Obama obviously worked extremely hard, but he never seemed to break a sweat or lose his composure. Neither did his well-chosen and disciplined team. The consistency of this performance caused confidence to rise within his base and among observers here and throughout the world. Let’s hope he can be that effective in… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

I think one’s take on the election falls along partisan lines:

Blues will argue “a quality product sells itself,” Reds will argue “Consumers (voters) crave novelty.”

Though I think Obama ran a superb campaign, the latter element will inevitably fade, and the re-election campaign–which unofficially began Tuesday night–will need a different focus.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

Nikki nailed it. Obama not only had an effective, consistent, relevant message, but he also managed to make it ubiquitous. His campaign went to where his voters would be: the Internet. And constant email contact made voters feel relevant and important.

The lesson for retailers is to be relevant where their customers are. Shoppers are on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on iTunes, on YouTube. Are retailers?

Phil Rubin
Guest
Phil Rubin
13 years 6 months ago
The Obama campaign provides three lessons that apply to any marketer in the 21st century. They are indeed very simple, though not always easy to execute. 1) As Ries elegantly points out, Obama created and consistently delivered on a credible and authentic brand promise. 2) He integrated the brand message in a disciplined and consistent manner across all appropriate touch points. 3) Most importantly, the Obama campaign, on the heels of Howard Dean’s grass roots CRM strategy, built a huge database of supporters, activist and contributors. The Obama campaign connected, mobilized and leveraged this audience in a manner that’s never been done before in politics or marketing. The evidence (aside from the victory) is perhaps best illustrated by the number of contributors and money raised as well as the people mobilized to do everything from soliciting to getting out the vote to standing on street corners holding Obama signs on Tuesday. In short, the Obama campaign did everything that any smart retailer should do. They built an addressable base of supporters and put themselves in… Read more »
David Piehl
Guest
David Piehl
13 years 6 months ago

Not only did Obama and his campaign keep the message simple and consistent, they also kept it vague…letting every disaffected person in the country interpret “change” to mean what they wanted it to. What is “change”? “Change” can be for the better or for the worse–I’m just pointing out how truly broad a term like “change” is. By never specifically defining “change,” Obama successfully appealed to a large group of people who could potentially have been alienated by the details.

Andrea Learned
Guest
Andrea Learned
13 years 6 months ago
Obama’s campaign was managed in a very conceptual age way. As per Dan Pink’s discussion in “A Whole New Mind,” Obama and his crew took a balanced R and L-directed approach (right brain with left brain). They understood the linear side of things (facts/features that the public needed to see addressed) but they also used design, emotion, storytelling and other such R-directed elements to balance that into a much richer, whole-picture delivery, which resonated with a wider range of people. As George mentions, McCain’s campaign tried to do “change, but better,” which is a very L-directed way of thinking. It was a one-upping/status statement, in a way, that held no evidence/substance of innovation or different direction. The new way of leadership, social change and progress is to enhance/enrich/build on the L-directed ways by integrating the more “social” and emotional connections in life–which is what R-directed thinking adds. And, to Liz’s point–the social networking savvy of Obama’s campaign truly harnessed and reflected this “whole mind” conceptual approach. Marketers can most definitely learn from this case study.
Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
13 years 6 months ago
Visuals were also a huge part of the Obama brand. The campaign started with its expansive logo that managed to build in suggestions of the flag for patriotism, the heartland with its endless rolling fields and the glowing promise of a better future–all using the simple parts of the humble letter O. Then they did three things: They developed their own Rockwell-esque illustration/photo style that they used for all the visuals of the campaign, from simple spot illustrations, like the camera icon that marks the photo section on the web site, to the pictures of the important people in the campaign, like the shot of Hillary they used for the graphics that welcomed her supporters to the campaign and–I believe but never checked it out–gave them their own area on the site. They developed a sophisticated graphic style that went far beyond the traditional flat red/white/royal-or-navy that political brands use, using the color of the sky and subtle gradations of color to evoke our highest hopes and dreams–and to create a sense of three-dimensional space.… Read more »
Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
13 years 6 months ago
While I appreciate Al Ries’ breakdown of the campaign from a marketing perspective, I actually think Pete Snyder’s comments are more spot on. This wasn’t just about the right message. This was about recognizing a fundamental shift in how consumers engage; how they engage with media, how they engage with causes they believe in, and how they engage with each other. And that’s not just a “youth vote thing.” Is this not exactly what retailers have been grappling with? A shift in how consumers engage with brands? I think the difference came down to this: McCain ran a traditional campaign (and he also didn’t do all the things that Al Ries points out made Obama successful), and Obama ran a completely different kind of campaign–a 21st century campaign. It’s true that his message was simple and consistent, but he also had an opportunity to put it in front of a heck of a lot more people–people who felt committed because they bought in at $5 and $10 rates–and in channels they were already engaged in,… Read more »
Carlos Arámbula
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

It was classic marketing. The Obama team developed a solid Communications Strategy.

When the marketing is solid, advertising is simple, consistent, relevant, and best of all–effective.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
13 years 6 months ago
Nikki–I loved the Kennedy/Obama, TV/Internet analogy. Here’s how I see it: 1. Tip O’Neal used to say that “all politics are local.” 2. Executing on local is expensive (volunteer time) and hard. 3. Prior to this election, politicians did not have billions of dollars of infrastructure (of the web 2.0 style) and billions of dollars of access devices (mobile, etc) available that could be directed towards the problem of executing on a local level. (Does this mean that Obama’s campaign, by virtue of their social networking skills, had a hidden asset of billions of $$?) 4. Executing at a local level, communicating and executing the placement of a sign, etc, when observed at the national level, represents a task list that could only be tackled with the 10x productivity gains that an organization that lives by these techniques (I overstate here, how about 1.5x?). 5. What is the value of the viral marketing that each turned-on O supporter was a part of? Was that enabled by the talking points that the O campaign provided for… Read more »
John Gaffney
Guest
John Gaffney
13 years 6 months ago

I believe that retailers can learn a different lesson from the Obama campaign. Change, consistency, authenticity…all that is great. But for me there is one quality that stands out: aspiration. As a person, he aspires to better. His message to voters, even more than change, was aspiring to do better. His competitor did not come across as aspiring to anything; he tore down. Great brands communicate aspiration. Examples: Just Do It, Eat Fresh, Is It In You? Retailers can still do that.

Lee Peterson
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

Well, they’re interconnected of course, but certainly, if we hadn’t felt “change” was necessary, his message would not have resonated.

One missing element from Al’s writing though is the fact that Barry pretty much stayed out of the mud/name calling that had so defined the last two elections. I saw one of his ads back to back with McCain’s once and the contrast was startling: a young guy talking about parents turning off their TVs and helping their kids learn vs. an old guy accusing that very same young guy of treason.

So, differentiating, or “Blue Ocean” worked for him too.

Brian Kelly
Guest
13 years 6 months ago

Obama was incredibly disciplined and innovative. A rare mix. Really took a page from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.”

He stuck to the brand promise all the way to his acceptance speech. What we all can learn? Barack turned the brand over to the customer. He asked for permission to govern. Listened to P&G’s AG Lafely, I suppose.

His use of the internet was a primer for all. Again, on strategy all the way. His SEO use was a generation ahead of McCain. I think they are breaking their own trail in this space.

NET NET, The most important lesson is that marketing in the US is no longer about demographics. The game has changed; why are the exit polls challenged when it’s behaviors that matter. Not as easy, but as we know, retail, like politics, ain’t for sissies!

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
13 years 6 months ago

Yes, Obama’s marketing was great, but let’s remember, marketing costs money. Obama’s campaign raised and spent $603 million compared with McCain’s $84 million. So much money that he bought himself a half hour of prime time TV on 7 channels, one week before the election. Still wonder why his message was so clear? Let’s also remember that Obama was the media sweetheart. Hillary and McCain suffered from this bias (which can’t be paid for).

The Obama camp definitely out marketed the McCain camp. I was registered on both web sites and received 3 to 5 emails a day from Obama’s campaign. Messages from Barack, Michelle, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and other notable Democrats came to me daily. From the McCain side, I received an average of 1 to 2 emails a day.

True, Obama is an eloquent speaker and his marketing was by far better than McCain’s. But Obama outspent McCain by 7 times and still only won 53% of the popular vote. The extra money obviously paid off.

robin albin
Guest
robin albin
13 years 6 months ago

In my mind, HOPE and not CHANGE was the core message of the Obama campaign that resonated so profoundly with the millions of Americans who repeatedly opened their wallets and joined this powerful movement. Obviously President-Elect Obama represented change in every feature of his campaign, from his own physical persona to his use of the internet to the social networking of his volunteer army. Having worked on the campaign, I can tell you it was nothing short of amazing.

And obviously his consistency of message was outstanding. But the energy, excitement and fierce loyalty he inspired came from the strong emotions he instilled in people. Obama tapped into the essence of the American psyche that had been lost–HOPE and optimism.

Gary Edwards, PhD
Guest
Gary Edwards, PhD
13 years 6 months ago

In looking at Obama’s campaign, the most effective strategy was delivering a consistent “experience” for voters. Consistency of message (“time for change”), consistency of tone (aggressive, intelligent, innovative), and consistency of focus (domestic issues, working class priorities, sensibility). Obama did not waiver on his campaign’s core messages and, in doing so, established himself as a candidate that was not going to shift priorities on a dime.

By delivering a consistent message and sticking to convictions, as opposed to jumping on the assorted “voter trends,” Obama overcame the “inexperienced” tag and, obviously, captured the minds (and votes…) of the electorate.

Of course a sour economy, record job loss, the ongoing war in Iraq, and a host of other factors to assign blame on the Republican party doesn’t hurt, but the “marketing” of Obama over the course of the campaign – and especially the thematic of “consistency” – most definitely worked.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
13 years 6 months ago

Obama’s branding and communication strategies have changed politics forever. The lesson for marketers–be real to consumers and be consistent in your messages.

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