Marketing Lessons from Obama's Campaign

Why the winning Presidential strategy, though remarkable, won't sell yogurt, cars, or virtually any other consumer product
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

In recent weeks, I've ended up more than once amid marketing executives discussing, with apparent seriousness, what the purveyors of ordinary products can learn from the campaign that sold America on Barack Obama. To which my response is, well, they can learn lots. As long as they, too, sell something that makes people cry when they see it giving an acceptance speech.

A baseline marketing truth is that any successful ad campaign is seized upon by zillions of imitators. I once had an exasperated movie marketer tell me that many higher-ups were fixated on the kind of stealth Web campaigns employed by The Blair Witch Project or the ill-fated Snakes on a Plane, apparently not comprehending that what works for low-budget horror films may not translate to an 18th century costume drama. Marketers have Obama on the brain because there aren't many other marketing success stories right now. (And also because, as a largely wealthy and cosmopolitan group, they probably voted for him.)

But any candidate's methods and pitches, and Obama's in particular, are difficult to transpose to other products. If you try to reduce a living, breathing candidate to something you can stock on a shelfwell, you still have an unusual product. A consumer buys a candidate only once per election. A Presidential contender can inspire profoundly emotional responses: Here is the man or woman who will captain my country, keep my family safe, save my job, etc. A star political performer—and observers of any political stripe can see that Obama inhabits his role as gracefully as Ali boxed or Nureyev danced—can beget an online ecosystem of social networks and YouTube (GOOG) traffic and fund-raising efforts never before seen. On top of that, the Obama campaign managed to leave voters feeling noble merely by participating. "The voter as hero" was how Republican strategist Alex Castellanos described it at one gathering I attended. "He created a cause."

Hate to tell you, Mr. Marketer, but your yogurt isn't going to turn those who eat it a few times a month into heroes. Because—duh!—yogurt, like virtually all other products, won't generate intense identification and loyalty and participation among the citizenry. Those who pontificate on marketing matters already are prattling on about how Obama created a wiki campaign, in which thousands, if not millions, both influenced and sold the brand. But what's left obscure is how impossible it is for almost anything else to generate such a response. And it overlooks how disciplined the Obama campaign was in driving its one-word message of "change" from the top down. The genius was not in the wiki. It was in launching a simple-themed campaign that participants flocked to.

It's true that Dove successfully imbued a prosaic beauty brand with the urgency of a political cause via its well-known "Real Beauty" campaign. It's also true that basic mainstream products almost never pull that off. (It's hard even for a brand that can stake a plausible claim to being a cause, like the Toyota (TM) Prius.) And I'm certain that, in a time of tight purse strings among consumers and advertisers, we'll see many more simple, price-oriented ad campaigns than ambitious efforts to rewrite what brands signify.

A candidate's brief is much different from a product's. Coke (KO) may seek to get drinkers of other sodas to try its wares once, or try them again, because in mature categories your gains come only at your competitors' expense. Not so in politics, wherein you do three things: build awareness, turn on (and turn out) supporters, and try to sway undecideds.

The latter point leads to the most delicious anomaly of political marketing: the negative ad, because it's much easier to scare someone into voting against than to seduce them into voting for. And there, finally, is something marketers can glean from Election '08. Forget the cute stuff like Apple's Mac/PC campaign. Wouldn't it be awesome if companies used most ads for vicious attacks on their rivals? I have no idea if it would work. But it would be hilarious.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.