The Obama Brand

The Marketing Doctor says:

The Obama Brand Must Get Rid Of The “Inevitability Factor”


First there was the pseudo-presidential seal, and now the grand tour of Europe and the Middle East, with a speech before 200,000 at the Victory Column in Berlin. 

Barack Obama seems unstoppable, the inevitable winner in November’s presidential election —and that is exactly why his brand needs to show that it isn’t if the Democrats want to win the Oval Office this year. 

A little vulnerability and a little less inevitability is critical in the branding of successful political candidates for one simple reason: voters want to choose; they do not want the choice made for them. 

This is the mistake Hillary made; and if Obama and his team aren’t careful, they are going to make the same mistake, too.  The “inevitability factor” is a curse.  I have personally been involved in campaigns where over-confidence was invariably met with defeat…the kind of campaigns where the old mantra “campaign as if you’re behind” should have been implemented, but wasn’t because of over-confidence –you could see the train wreck coming.  Just ask President Thomas Dewey about over-confidence in politics!

The president of the United States is not elected in Europe, and whatever missteps McCain’s campaign has made to date, last week’s visit to a German sausage restaurant in Ohio while Obama was wowing the crowds in Berlin was not one of them.  It might not have gotten a lot of press, but it was the kind of gesture –self-effacing, humor at one’s own expense and down-home— that Americans tend to value.

The polls might not show it (they have yet to devise a poll that can measure creeping exasperation and annoyance among the electorate), but my guess is that Obama’s brand might have been hurt by the European trip and the all-out adulation. 

One of the trickiest areas of marketing is the intangibility of branding and avoiding those moments of “critical mass” when, because of doing the wrong thing too many times or not doing the right thing too many times, your brand has rubbed your target market the wrong way and permanent damage has been done. 

This is why I always tell my clients that brand problems don’t begin when your target market starts to walk out the door.  They’ve started long before that sad brand-breaking moment.  Brands need to keep their ears to the ground and listen for the rumbling of the stampede well before there are any other signs.

In Obama’s case, I think those rumblings are the unfettered adulation and the fact that he and his campaign are being seen to encourage the adulation , –almost accept it as being appropriate and —that word— inevitable. 

This is exactly the trap that the Clinton camp fell into, and it’s understandable.  After all, what candidate wouldn’t welcome crowds of 200,000 all coming out just to support him?  Or world leaders falling over each other just to shake his hand?  Or being dubbed the next President?  It takes incredible discipline and maybe superhuman marketing rigor to damp down people’s enthusiasm and keep your eyes and everyone else’s on the reality that the contest is not even close to being over.  After all, it seems so hard to get people enthusiastic about anything in the first place.

But this is exactly what the Obama brand needs to do. 

Last week the media worried about whether Obama would make a protocol gaffe in meeting with world leaders, and a collective sigh of relief seemed to be released when he didn’t (except for taking over the show from Sarkozy during their press conference).  A more serious gaffe was not visiting the wounded soldiers in Germany –but we’ll see if that one has media legs (if it does, that will hurt the Obama brand by underscoring the arrogance and inevitability characteristics).

But in Obama’s case, the real gaffe might have been that he didn’t make the right kind of gaffe.   By the right kind of gaffe, I obviously don’t mean some brand-destroying mistake like Gary Hart on the luxury yacht Monkey Business

No, I mean the kind of mistake that shows that Obama knows that he isn’t the President Elect and puts him in the position of having to show that he values every American’s vote.  Replace the “inevitability factor” with the “I’m likeable and want to earn your vote” factor. 

McCain’s events might not be well attended right now, but voters tend to respect someone who doesn’t seem to take them for granted –and McCain has been doing this out of necessity since his comeback in the primaries. 

McCain’s brand has always been at its most successful as the underdog and the outsider –and now he is using this to his advantage. (This is his brand and he’s comfortable with it). 

The American voter likes the underdog, and my guess is that McCain is scoring branding points simply by not appearing inevitable and fighting on no matter what the odds.  And McCain’s radio address during the Obama trip expressed something that speaks to almost every American voter target market: “With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to ‘the people of the world,’ I’m starting to feel a little left out.  Maybe you are too.”

My guess is that McCain’s campaign is also inflicting real brand damage by labeling Obama “The One” and drawing attention to his apparent inevitability.  As I said, this damage won’t show in the polls right away, but it’s serious because it is probably taking hold in voters’ minds.  And this brand perception is something the Obama campaign must counteract right away if it doesn’t want it to grow into a major problem.

Fact is, there is one negative I wouldn’t wish on any political brand:  Arrogant inevitability.  This is one negative that is almost impossible to unbrand.  One thing’s for sure: “Mr. Inevitable” will inevitably lose the election.

And, remember, it’s always easier when you keep branding in mind!


A successful political brand only becomes the inevitable choice if it recognizes that it is the target market that makes the ultimate choice, not the brand.


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