Lessons From America

“When the book is written on [the US presidential election], it should not be titled The Making of a President, but The Marketing of a President,” says Harvard Business School Professor John Quelch. “Barack Obama’s campaign is a case study in marketing excellence.”

As Quelch says, for an inexperienced, single-term, African-American senator tagged with the most liberal voting record to defeat the heir apparent in his own party and then go on to hold off the much-vaunted Republican machine “is a truly remarkable achievement.”

Obama’s achievement was a triumph of true marketing, in the sense that it was based on substance rather than spin. It demonstrated how carefully marshalling all the forces at your disposal can help you overcome apparently insurmountable odds. As such, it provides signal lessons for business leaders – particularly in the current economic downturn.

Obama’s personal charisma played a major role in his success. But he used this to good effect, deploying not just his tremendous public speaking skills in rallies and debates, but showing himself to be an excellent listener too. His demeanor was consistently positive and composed, while his compelling biography – his background and his evident closeness to his immediate and extended family – attracted the attention and empathy of voters.

He converted this empathy into tangible support – not least from the grass roots. More citizens volunteered time and money to help the Obama campaign than for any previous presidential candidate. A large percentage of the funds came from first-time donors – many of them in traditionally hard-to-reach groups, such as youth and people with a criminal record.

His fundraising prowess was aided by his clear understanding of the power of communications media – particularly the internet – to engage voters in what has been dubbed ‘the first YouTube election’. By contrast, Republican candidate John McCain’s early admission that he didn’t use the internet put him at a severe disadvantage in what turned out to be the critical online battle.

“Obama’s campaign demonstrated that if you have a powerful message to get across, these enabling technologies allow you to communicate with tens of millions of people immediately and very effectively, says Steve Harty, Chairman of advertising agency BBH New York. “Many brands in the commercial world have not fully realised the power of this.”

And his message was very powerful, very consistent and very clear, and designed to appeal to all citizens, not just traditional or likely Democratic voters. At a time when the populace was terminally aggrieved with the most unpopular president in US history, who had led them into an unpopular war and a severe financial crisis, Obama’s message of hope and ‘change we can believe in’ was deeply compelling.

But, as Quelch points out, “the emotional appeal was buttressed with solid and specific policy details.” As he says, the ability to combine emotional with functional benefits and the consistent positioning of both message and delivery, are core to all successful branding campaigns – whether product or corporate.

But though Obama quickly outsmarted him on the presentation front, McCain started out well, says Howard Belk, Co-President and Chief Creative Officer at Siegel and Gale in New York.

He explains: “McCain took his reputation for straight talking around the country on his ‘Straight Talk Express’ campaign bus. But when he started to fall behind in the polls and got swept up in the financial crisis, he started to get very reactive and slipped into a different communication mode.

“He switched to ‘attack politics’ in an attempt to distract people from the economy. But going ‘off brand’ lost him
momentum and voter support.”

McCain’s departure for Washington to supposedly help solve the sub-prime mortgage crisis was interpreted as a cynical attempt to rescue his own reputation rather than the economy. By contrast, Obama’s thoughtful, calm and nuanced discussion about the meltdown reinforced perceptions about his ability to lead amid financial turbulence.

Obama also chose an excellent marketing and campaign team, and managed them well, choosing a noncontroversial experienced senator, with complementary experience, as his running mate. But McCain assembled a smooth-running campaign team relatively late in the day, and his choice of the unknown and untested Sarah Palin as his number two proved to be another nail in his coffin.

Belk observes: “Joe Biden played a narrow and very focused role in the Obama ticket – foreign affairs and perhaps the working class. It was very clear who was leading and who was supporting. McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin, on the other hand, looked like a smart move initially – she was young and she was a woman – but she became a bigger focus of media attention than McCain himself, which was confusing.”

Nevertheless, the appointment did put the Republicans in control of the news cycle – albeit temporarily. “It created short-term interest, hype and buzz – the kind of ‘new news’ that brands thrive on,” says Kristian Sumners, a freelance creative director in New York.

Negative advertising – historically an accepted feature of US politics – also helped generate headlines. But as the campaign unfolded voters demonstrated a growing dislike of the tactic, a symptom, believes Harty, of an increasingly well-informed and savvy electorate: “US citizens are much more sophisticated consumers of politics now,” he says.

It might also reflect a desire for authenticity and integrity at a time when once-trusted and ‘safe’ institutions such as government and banks are proving to be fallible.

In any case, Obama’s skill in preempting and defusing criticisms should be a salutary lesson for any business leader who tries to keep their skeletons safely locked up in cupboards.

“He and his advisers managed the political chess board brilliantly,” says Quelch. “Early on he anticipated and defused negative criticisms by admitting to past indiscretions in his autobiography.”

Obama has built a bond of trust with the American people that most business leaders can only aspire to forge with their customers. He now has to deliver on his promises. That, as even the best business leaders know, is the difficult bit. Some quotes from this article were taken, with permission, from Marketing magazine, 12th November 2008.

Impact Executives, specialists in interim management.

Lessons From America

“When the book is written on [the US presidential election], it should not be titled The Making of a President, but The Marketing of a President,” says Harvard Business School Professor John Quelch. “Barack Obama’s campaign is a case study in marketing excellence.”

As Quelch says, for an inexperienced, single-term, African-American senator tagged with the most liberal voting record to defeat the heir apparent in his own party and then go on to hold off the much-vaunted Republican machine “is a truly remarkable achievement.”

Obama’s achievement was a triumph of true marketing, in the sense that it was based on substance rather than spin. It demonstrated how carefully marshalling all the forces at your disposal can help you overcome apparently insurmountable odds. As such, it provides signal lessons for business leaders – particularly in the current economic downturn.

Obama’s personal charisma played a major role in his success. But he used this to good effect, deploying not just his tremendous public speaking skills in rallies and debates, but showing himself to be an excellent listener too. His demeanor was consistently positive and composed, while his compelling biography – his background and his evident closeness to his immediate and extended family – attracted the attention and empathy of voters.

He converted this empathy into tangible support – not least from the grass roots. More citizens volunteered time and money to help the Obama campaign than for any previous presidential candidate. A large percentage of the funds came from first-time donors – many of them in traditionally hard-to-reach groups, such as youth and people with a criminal record.

His fundraising prowess was aided by his clear understanding of the power of communications media – particularly the internet – to engage voters in what has been dubbed ‘the first YouTube election’. By contrast, Republican candidate John McCain’s early admission that he didn’t use the internet put him at a severe disadvantage in what turned out to be the critical online battle.

“Obama’s campaign demonstrated that if you have a powerful message to get across, these enabling technologies allow you to communicate with tens of millions of people immediately and very effectively, says Steve Harty, Chairman of advertising agency BBH New York. “Many brands in the commercial world have not fully realised the power of this.”

And his message was very powerful, very consistent and very clear, and designed to appeal to all citizens, not just traditional or likely Democratic voters. At a time when the populace was terminally aggrieved with the most unpopular president in US history, who had led them into an unpopular war and a severe financial crisis, Obama’s message of hope and ‘change we can believe in’ was deeply compelling.

But, as Quelch points out, “the emotional appeal was buttressed with solid and specific policy details.” As he says, the ability to combine emotional with functional benefits and the consistent positioning of both message and delivery, are core to all successful branding campaigns – whether product or corporate.

But though Obama quickly outsmarted him on the presentation front, McCain started out well, says Howard Belk, Co-President and Chief Creative Officer at Siegel and Gale in New York.

He explains: “McCain took his reputation for straight talking around the country on his ‘Straight Talk Express’ campaign bus. But when he started to fall behind in the polls and got swept up in the financial crisis, he started to get very reactive and slipped into a different communication mode.

“He switched to ‘attack politics’ in an attempt to distract people from the economy. But going ‘off brand’ lost him
momentum and voter support.”

McCain’s departure for Washington to supposedly help solve the sub-prime mortgage crisis was interpreted as a cynical attempt to rescue his own reputation rather than the economy. By contrast, Obama’s thoughtful, calm and nuanced discussion about the meltdown reinforced perceptions about his ability to lead amid financial turbulence.

Obama also chose an excellent marketing and campaign team, and managed them well, choosing a noncontroversial experienced senator, with complementary experience, as his running mate. But McCain assembled a smooth-running campaign team relatively late in the day, and his choice of the unknown and untested Sarah Palin as his number two proved to be another nail in his coffin.

Belk observes: “Joe Biden played a narrow and very focused role in the Obama ticket – foreign affairs and perhaps the working class. It was very clear who was leading and who was supporting. McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin, on the other hand, looked like a smart move initially – she was young and she was a woman – but she became a bigger focus of media attention than McCain himself, which was confusing.”

Nevertheless, the appointment did put the Republicans in control of the news cycle – albeit temporarily. “It created short-term interest, hype and buzz – the kind of ‘new news’ that brands thrive on,” says Kristian Sumners, a freelance creative director in New York.

Negative advertising – historically an accepted feature of US politics – also helped generate headlines. But as the campaign unfolded voters demonstrated a growing dislike of the tactic, a symptom, believes Harty, of an increasingly well-informed and savvy electorate: “US citizens are much more sophisticated consumers of politics now,” he says.

It might also reflect a desire for authenticity and integrity at a time when once-trusted and ‘safe’ institutions such as government and banks are proving to be fallible.

In any case, Obama’s skill in preempting and defusing criticisms should be a salutary lesson for any business leader who tries to keep their skeletons safely locked up in cupboards.

“He and his advisers managed the political chess board brilliantly,” says Quelch. “Early on he anticipated and defused negative criticisms by admitting to past indiscretions in his autobiography.”

Obama has built a bond of trust with the American people that most business leaders can only aspire to forge with their customers. He now has to deliver on his promises. That, as even the best business leaders know, is the difficult bit. Some quotes from this article were taken, with permission, from Marketing magazine, 12th November 2008.

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