Obama, Brand of the Millennium, Learns a Marketing Lesson

Under-promise. Over-deliver.

Or, since this is politics, over-promising is to be expected, but then one has to at least over-deliver in some fashion.

On the one-year anniversary of his historic inauguration, President Obama is being taken to task for not having delivered on promises of change, not having fixed the train wreck of an economy, nor presenting true healthcare reform to the nation. This is disappointing to those who supported him, but of course the rational among us look at what he has accomplished, especially given the destruction he inherited from the W-bomb.

But, as marketing professionals certainly know, consumers (and voters) are anything but rational. So, what went wrong?

President Obama's campaign was brilliantly branded. The narrative was stunningly compelling. Why, the guy was even named Marketer of the Year by AdAge, handily besting both Apple and Nike, much as he bested John McCain.

Glenn Greenwald, writing in the NY Times today, noted that Brand Obama has failed in its most central task: Delivering on the promise the "consumers" had "purchased" with their votes:

A candidate who railed against secret deals and lobbyist influence negotiated this health care plan in secrecy with industry lobbyists, got caught entering into secret deals with the pharmaceutical industry, agreed to abandon his commitment to drug re-importation and bulk price negotiations in order to please the pharmaceutical lobby, and cavalierly refused to abide by his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open.

It's essentially the same as finding out your Snuggie failed to keep you warm, or being unable to get anyone to answer the phone at the Ginsu Knife Set headquarters, even though they promised that "operators are standing by."

Even our own Gavin Newsom, no stranger to the fickle nature of the voters, feels let down by Brand Obama, as he noted with clarity to Maureen Dowd:

I asked whether President Obama, who said at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration that the civil rights movement was partly about “changing people’s hearts and minds and breaking out of old customs and old habits,” had disappointed him given that the president is a triumph of civil rights himself.
“Oh, I can’t get in trouble here,” Newsom said with a playful wince. “I want him to succeed. But I am very upset by what he’s not done in terms of rights of gays and lesbians. I understand it tactically in a campaign, but at this point I don’t know. There is some belief that he actually doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage. But it’s fundamentally inexcusable for a member of the Democratic Party to stand on the principle that separate is now equal, but only on the basis of sexual orientation. We’ve always fought for the rights of minorities and against the whims of majorities.”
He said the promise of Obama sparking an “organic movement” has faded and “there’s a growing discontent and lack of enthusiasm that I worry about. He should just stand on principle, put this behind him and move on.”

Essentially, Brand Obama has lost control of the narrative, and because the marketing was so brilliant, that the reality of the politics of governing begins to look like a betrayal to the brand's most fervent evangelists.

But of course, this blog is not about politics, but about branding and marketing. So, the lesson to marketers in general? If your brand has massive value, be true to the consumers who imbued it with that value. You don't have to deliver perfection. In fact, most American consumers don't really want true perfection, as Clotard Rapaille noted in his book The Culture Code, they just want something that works.

In Obama's case, that would probably mean paying more attention to his core customer. We'll see if politicians really do understand marketing.


  1. Good post Tony. I couldn't agree more. (It's Ben, stumbled across this blog through the wessling site, which looks pretty familiar to me :). Hope you're doing well, I'm not doing too bad myself).


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