Barack Obama used multiple “touch points” and social media platforms to create a brand that was a key ingredient to winning the Presidency in 2008. His brand strategy is a case study for marketers to study in creating brand in a New Media Age. President Obama’s branding strategy is something that is a distinct paradigm change from previous social media strategy and branding. It is basic strategy for a company to integrate their websites with social media platforms. What President Obama did that is different is that he created a web site, MyBO.com that functioned as a mini-facebook, a mini-social platform. He broke new ground in the use of social media in branding. Private companies should study Barack’s strategy to understand how to create a world-class brand virtually overnight. In our era this is important for a marketer because there are many, many products. For a product to be chosen from the many, it has to have a strong brand. How does a startup, which is what Barack’s campaign was, create a strong brand when the startup has limitations in capital? Social Media has created a new age. Social Media has changed how modern marketing is done—but a marketer needs a strategy to succeed and that strategy revolves around the strategic use of multiple “touch points”.
At this point I think some important introductory comments have to be made. President Obama is a lightning rod. As in all politicians there are many people who like him and there are many who don’t. This article is not a political statement, one way or the other, for President Obama. This article is about social media branding strategy. Irregardless of where you stand in the political spectrum, even Barack’s greatest detractors say his social media strategy was a classic use of social media to create a brand.
When I talk about creating “brand”, please don’t interpret this as a cynical statement of our political system and our way of electing presidents. Marketers should study political campaigns because they are classic studies in the creation of world class brands. In each political cycle, a large group of candidates emerges originally. Only one can be elected. A candidate must quickly distinguish themselves from the rest of the political field. The American people are not stupid. American elections are an example of the wisdom of crowds. To be elected a candidate must show that he is different from the rest of the candidates, and if elected can do a much better job than the others in the field. To win the American Presidency, a candidate must be an expert in creating brand awareness, creating a value proposition, and brand positioning. Winning the Presidency is not unlike creating a new product, and creating the brand for that product to be successful in the marketplace. This is why studying Barack Obama’s social media strategy is important. Barack Obama is analogous to a small startup creating a product, but having significant limitations in name recognition and capital.
In old media, a startup couldn’t afford a large advertising campaign to create brand. Social Media has changed that. Social Media has created a “Perfect Storm”. To create a brand, a marketer has to have scale and presence. A lot of people have to know about your product, and a marketer has to be able to engage those large amounts of people at the precise moment that a purchasing decision is going to be made. Social Media allows a marketer to do just that. Perhaps ¼ of the world’s population belongs to a social media sight, and most of the major social media platforms are integrated. From those sights, a marketer can observe what a consumer does during their day. This tracking allows a marketer to target the individual consumers that are interested in the marketer’s product. A marketer can now target an individual at the precise time that a purchase is going to made.
Barack Obama was one of the first significant marketers to understand the tremendous communication capabilities, database management, and tracking abilities that a social media platform affords a marketer. Barack Obama understood that he could engage large amounts of people at once over many “touch points”. When his campaign first began, Barack had no name recognition and no money. Hilary Clinton had both. Barack understood the forces that social media platforms unleash to a marketer. He realized, far better than anyone else, that his limitations were minor. Barack realized that social media platforms gave him the tool that he needed to create a major brand almost overnight. Before the Obama campaign, social networks were seen as just that—a social network. Someplace you came to hang out with your friends, share pictures, and just basically enjoy yourself. To a limited extent the Howard Dean campaign used social networks to raise money in 2004, but not at the scale that Barack Obama did.
Barack’s campaign was not a haphazard affair. His social media campaign had goals, plans, and objectives. Barack realized that personal engagement was going to be critical. He created a web site that had the scale that was going to be needed. Barack took advantage of some major structural changes in the modern marketplace. Modern people no longer trust advertising. People trust their friends. In a new media age, a product is branded and purchased when two “friends” have a conversation, and a recommendation is made. To be successful a modern brand must be a “friend” to the consumer.
Two sources best explain the world that modern marketers must function in. The June 2009 McKinsey Quarterly talks about The Consumer Decision Journey. The December, 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review talks about “Branding in the Digital Age”. In both cases, in a New Media Age, consumers no longer develop brand awareness through one experience, such as a major advertising campaign. Rather, a brand is created after many and varied experiences between brand and consumer. In a new media age, a brand takes on almost human characteristics. In human relationships, the more experiences we have with an individual the more trust we have for that individual. We choose are friends for their brand. That brand is based on trust. We can depend on our friends. We know a lot of people, but we trust our friends. In a group of people, we seek our “friends”, from a wide group of people, because we can trust them. We realize that our friends are imperfect—there might be “better” people around than our friends—but we seek our friends because we trust them.
How does this trust develop? Trust is developed over a period of time through a series of experiences. This same principle applies in branding products. We develop friends through many “touch points”. Consumers seek out products through texts, video, blogs, podcasts from a social platform. This is how a brand is created—through a social media platform that creates many and varied touch points. Barack understood this.
A key element is in his campaign was to create a website that was actually a mini-social platform. Initially, a supporter or a seeker would go to MyBO and a profile would be created. Then, just as on Facebook, you made a decision on just what you wanted to do. The sight was there for you to help. It allowed supporters to access the information that was needed create meetups, to have fund raisers. It had a database of people to call on behalf of Obama. The sight allowed people to what they wanted to do. There was a method to the madness. Through the sight, the campaign could track the people who were strong supporters. This information allowed the campaign to discretely get volunteers to do more committed things. The more committed volunteers held fund raisers at their house, to call friends, to go door to door. An important function of MyBo was to link people who knew each other outside of the campaign to connect, such as is done on Facebook. For instance, if a strong supporter worked at a particular company, the campaign had the names of other people who also worked at that same company who were undecided or leaning toward Barack. The supporter could then go to their coworkers and talk about Barack around the water cooler in a discrete manner. Friends having conversation with their friends to recommend a product (Barack). This is how Barack’s brand was created. This is how products are branded in social media. Barack was able to brand himself as a “friend” in comparison to the other candidates—who were just “candidates”.
As the campaign progressed, supporters started making their own texts, videos, shooting their own pictures, making their own podcasts, and sending them to their friends, through the different social media platforms. Barack’s website (a social media platform) had these numbers:
• The site attracted 1.5 million members who organized themselves into 35,000 separate activist groups, each of which could be called INSTANTLY from the campaign headquarters to be given specific tasks in drumming up support.
• On election day, a MILLION calls were made. There were maps to the polls. Supporters were identified. Rides were arranged. Before the election, absentee ballots were delivered. During the campaign, million new supporters were registered online.
• 150, 000 separate meetings were used to mobilize volunteers
• Supporters placed their own campaign videos on YouTube. This is significant. People made these videos. The videos were placed on a sight that is one of the most popular on the Internet. YouTube viewership rivals major cable and home TV networks. This added media exposure was estimated at $47 million that the campaign did not have to pay.
• $600 million was raised from 3 million people
There is a critical fact to observe in Barack’s brand building. The Obama campaign gave the “brand” over to supporters. This is an interesting fact to observe about Barack’s branding strategy. Barack’s branding strategy was organized and managed. There was adult supervision—but much of his branding was done by individual supporters. This is analogous to the Ford Fiesta Movement that Ford Motor Company used in marketing their Ford Fiesta. To create a strong brand in the new media era the brand has to be given over to supporters to develop among their “friends”.
The hallmark of social media branding is the development of trust. This trust allows a brand to handle the unforeseen. There are no perfect people running for the Presidency—just as there are no perfect brands. Because of his brand building strategy and the trust that Barack developed, he was able to whether storms that happen in every campaign. People believe in their friends, and trust them, even when bad things are found out about them.
In the campaign of 2004, the campaigns of Dean and Kerry were derailed when stories began to appear about their personal backgrounds. Barack was able to handle bad events in his campaign. Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rescko, bad quotes from Michelle, would have been enough to sink a lot of campaigns. Barack was able to weather these events because he had built up a lot trust among voters. To many people, Barack was a “friend” and could be trusted. In new media, because trust is developed among “friends”, when bad things happen to your brand, customers still buy the brand.
Barack Obama created a brand through creating a social platform on his website and by engaging supporters at many touchpoints.