Brand Winners... And Losers: Obama and Facebook

Brand Winners…

   And Losers

The Marketing Doctor says:    

Winner: Obama

Loser: Facebook

Folks, more poli-marketing this week with our winner and some very dumb marketing on the part of the loser.

Without further ado:

The (Tentative) Winner:

Folks, the tentative winner is President Barack Obama —but with an emphasis on “tentative.”

Basically, President Obama did something that hasn’t been done before — namely his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  

Not everything novel should be rewarded, but in poli-marketing —which I have defined as the use of marketing to understand and master the political process— trying something that might get your message directly to the people needs to earn some credit.

Roosevelt did this with his Fireside Chats and Reagan with his Oval Office speeches. Now Obama is trying to find his poli-marketing stride with Jay Leno.

The reason President Obama earns a Marketing Doctor gold star is that he used the pull strategy again (see my posts on the pull strategy here and here). Basically, he sought to circumvent the media elites and opinion makers and take his case directly to his Target Market.

The pull strategy earned him short-term buzz, but will it work for the long-term?

I’m skeptical. First, when the voter encountered Roosevelt in those chats or Reagan in the Oval Office, there wasn’t anyone else in the room, only the President. And even though the President might have seemed relaxed or been engaging, he was still the President.

Did the same happen with Leno? No. Because there were multiple brands in the room: President Obama, Jay Leno, and that of The Tonight Show itself.

Leno and The Tonight Show have a history. They are a place where celebrities appear to promote movies or talk about themselves. It might not have been apparent, but when you step on that set, you can’t be one hundred percent presidential…something is lost.  

And that’s why I’m skeptical. There are many things about marketing and brands that can be tested and verified through the statistical tools we have, but many of the vital elements are intangible.  

I talked about these intangible elements two weeks ago over on Fox Forum: “Is Obama the New Coke?” In other words, there are things that the consumer wants or believes about a brand that can’t always be easily put into words, but that matter deeply.

This is especially true of the office of the President. There are almost mystical dimensions to the presidency. People want to elevate the person holding the job, and if they perceive that the person holding the job is lowering himself in some way . . . well, watch out.

So was President Obama Rooseveltian? I don’t think so.  

As I said, Roosevelt didn’t share his brand with anyone. Appearing on Leno is the equivalent of Roosevelt going on Jack Benny’s massively popular radio show. Unthinkable!

Second, joking and being “accessible” might be okay for a candidate, but it isn’t necessarily good for a President (given what I’ve said above about those intangibles).  

Third, The Tonight Show is associated with self-promotion, and that’s not good for a President who is supposed to be promoting everyone’s interests through his person.  

Finally, following up on point three, let’s talk Marshall Mcluhan and “The medium is the message.” The Presidential brand must be aware of its external features and how those features are employed; It’s no good having the President step off Air Force one in sweat pants.  

With the case of The Tonight Show, I think President Obama should have requested a different format, a taped segment, a modified set or something that would distinguish his appearance and make it more presidential and less Tonight Show.  By making some visible distinction, you diminish the risk of diluting the presidential brand.

The Special Olympics comment made by Obama is a good example of what can go wrong —especially in a comedic format where you are more likely to let your guard down. A better (but more traditional) venue was what we saw tonight on 60 Minutes. Obama's appearance will likely make headlines, but I don't think he will be seen as unpresidential.

I’m not making a political judgment here —I’m talking about poli-marketing.  In President Obama’s case, the Target Market is not only the Leno audience, but the entire electorate. From a ratings point of view, the appearance was good (11.2 million households) but not great, so President Obama will have to continue to employ all the tools in the poli-marketing tool kit (including his formidable email mailing list) to reach the Target Market.

If President Obama wants to be Rooseveltian, then he will continue to find novel ways of reaching out without risking the presidential brand. In poli-marketing terms, Rooseveltian doesn’t mean big government; it means finding ways to directly reach the people and calm them down in trying times —and these ways must be memorable and fitting for a president.

This is what Brand Obama will need to do in the weeks and months to come.

The Loser:

I love Facebook. (Visit me there!)

But Facebook has been incredibly dumb when it comes to this redesign question.  So dumb that you’d think Microsoft’s marketing geniuses might be behind it.

What am I talking about?  

Well, in a world of interactivity and consumer-driven web choices (and with an Internet model that is all about a positive user experience), Facebook has decided to employ the old, strong-arm, take-it-or-leave-it approach to product introduction.

See this piece on CNET that reports how Facebook’s CEO has sent an email to employees telling them to essentially disregard user complaints.  

This is extremely arrogant; and in real marketing, stupidity and arrogance are identical. If you are an arrogant marketer, then by definition you will make stupid mistakes.  

From a real marketing perspective, Facebook not only risks alienating users by forcing change on them, but it has also squandered an extraordinary marketing opportunity.

With all of the interactive and social networking features that Facebook has at its disposal, as well as its massive publicity engine, Facebook’s marketing potential is enormous.  

How easy would it have been for Facebook to create a huge worldwide contest for the redesign and taken a wiki-approach, thus generating massive press, goodwill among its users, and ultimately even stronger brand loyalty. (After all, the users would have been co-designers?)

Bottom line, there is no excuse for Facebook having 94 percent of users against the new design. At the very least, they could have done a series of tests and a gradual rollout —anything but what they actually did (a move which goes against any Internet company’s basic brand DNA).

Where do they go from here?  

They should admit their mistake, harness all of the uproar, and do something along the lines I suggest above, or something even more creative.

I hope they do, and I hope they remember that the customer is always right.  Stay tuned.

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.


If your Target Market says they don’t like what you have done, listen to them. They’re always right.


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