What is more important in the U.S. electoral campaign, the message or the image? Can a presidential candidate turn his name into a brand? The U.S. elections have become a case study in how to use marketing tools so that a politician’s image prevails over his message. Both John McCain, the Republican candidate, and Barack Obama, the Democrat, have brought out all of their heavy artillery when it comes to communications techniques aimed at the public. However, experts say that Obama’s campaign has been more innovative, relying on the creation of a brand image, not only in his race for the White House but his duel with Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
According to Joshua Novick, chief executive of Antevenio, a Madrid-based company that specializes in online advertising and interactive marketing, “The Obama political platform is not the fundamental thing because he has learned from the errors of his predecessors, [John]Kerry and [Al] Gore, who tried to explain things in a deeper way in their campaigns. That led to contradictions that were used by the Republicans and constantly disseminated by the mass media. In this sense, Obama has a platform that is tied to the Internet. He wants to be more generic and, above all, to repeat a half dozen or so key messages that employ ‘change’ as their axis of continuity.”
“The platform is not the dominant thing” for McCain either, in Novick’s opinion. Instead, his campaign is about values, “something that the Republicans have been doing for 30 years. His values emphasize that the government does not have to intervene in the lives of citizens and when that happens, the country functions better. Naturally, the platform of the Republicans is poorer.” Novick adds that “The important thing is the combination of good marketing and a message that reaches people and connects with them emotionally. In this sense, the main change has been the positive message of Obama. McCain takes a more defensive stance because he has been in the Senate and he has voted in favor of proposals that are very unpopular today, and because he has to break away from Bush. In this sense, his message is much more complex. Nevertheless, Obama is very positive, and barely attacks the policies of the past because that would be obvious. Currently, only 23% of Americans approve the policies of George Bush.”
“The Obama campaign has chosen good marketing techniques,” says Teresa Serra, a professor of marketing at IE Business School in Madrid. For Serra, the keys are “the different, useful way he has positioned himself for an important group of the American electorate for whom he is well known, and with whom he communicates regularly. He has also created a fresh brand, with rational and emotional attributes that generate confidence. And he has drawn up a perfectly integrated communications plan, utilizing unconventional media. Some media people have called him the digital candidate.” For Novick, “The campaign has been very innovative when it comes to the intensive use of the Internet both for its advertising communication, such as with viral marketing, and the way it uses social networks. Its messages of ‘Change’ and ‘Yes We Can’ have been a total success. It has also used one-to-one marketing, which operates house by house and street by street with an unprecedented deployment of people. In other respects, it has been quite traditional, for example, in the importance that it gives to television. However, its spending has been targeted more at local channels than at national ones.”
‘O,’ the dawn of a new logo
To create a new brand, the first thing you need is a logo. Obama has used the initials of his surname, the way George W. Bush used ‘W’ in his day, to identify his campaign. Nevertheless, he has developed the concept that, ultimately, has been used to create the logo of a brand in which the capital letter ‘O’ is in blue, traversed by three red lines, which appears to represent dawn. For Luis Manzano, director of Spanish operations for Landor, the New York-based marketing consultancy, this design has been a ‘total success.’ In his view, this logo has been totally balanced, even managing to play with the palindrome phenomenon between the O of Obama and the ‘08’ of ‘2008.’ Obviously, the colors are also important because they are the same as in the U.S. flag.
Novick agrees. “I consider it a success to associate Obama to the dawn, since the meaning of this is very much in line with all this talk about change. This is a new beginning of a new stage. If we take into account that the sun is a fundamental element of our life, and that it is totally associated with good weather, we find even more reasons for using this logo, and nothing else. For me, it is very important that they use colors of the American flag and that they use red bars, which represent a piece of land, without using any stars so that they avoid the image of a harder and more military America.”
In order to develop the entire potential of a marketing program, you also need to have a message. Serra believes that, although the platform and the message are important, “The way you communicate is becoming more and more important — the way you deliver a specific message to your target. In this sense, in the Obama campaign many of the messages are created by ordinary citizens, something that gives them greater credibility.” In her opinion, “The use of a short phrase that encapsulates the positioning of a product is an efficient marketing tool, and it is one of the hardest things to accomplish. In the case of ‘Yes We Can,” there are two interesting things that make this effective. First, there is the positive tone of the message. Second, there is the use of ‘We’ instead of ‘I.’ This gets ordinary citizens involved in the project, and gives them a leading role. You can’t say more than that in three words.”
Novick notes that the message of the Obama campaign is another key factor from the viewpoint of the brand. “The message is positive. [Sen. Joe] Biden, the vice-presidential candidate, is the one who attacks, while Obama has taken a positive approach. There is also the key question of race. For Obama, it is critical that he not be seen as a socially resentful African American. It is fundamental to transmit this positive approach. Perhaps the stance that he has taken is more positive than what he would have liked to take. What happened is that after he did that, he had the good fortune that conditions turned in his favor, and his message of change and hope are getting through more during this economic crisis.”
His two key phrases are ‘Change’ and ‘Yes We Can.’ This message is the most traditional sort of marketing. He has succeeded by associating himself with the word ‘Change.’ You don’t have to explain a great deal; it is a simple approach and it is perfectly understood. “Yes We Can’ is a very good slogan because the targets do the interpretation by themselves; for example, ‘Yes, this time we are going to win the election.’” On the other hand, Novick explains that this message represents the American dream, and it can reach other targets. “It is an indirect nod toward the entire African American community. But, above all, the most brilliant part of ‘Yes We Can’ is that it has managed to attract many potential Republican voters from rural America in the center of the country. These states have been traditionally Republican because of their values (yes to guns; no to abortion rights). Now, Obama is representing the essence of America: that any person can go where they want to go irrespective of their origin. You can be a farmer and become a millionaire, and send your son to study at Harvard.”
Method and Message
The public is another element that you have to take into account before launching a marketing campaign. The latest novelty has been a television advertisement in which Obama targets Spanish-speaking voters. As for that target, Novick says that this campaign is very much directed at young people, encouraging them to register to vote. “The United States is not like Spain, where any person above 18 is covered in the census and can [automatically] vote. In the U.S., you need to go through another step, voter registration. Obama has pushed people to get registered — on the one hand, over the Internet and, on the other hand, he has been helped a great deal by (enlisting) churches.” Novick says that this is the first time that a Democrat has gotten support from churches. “Although the black vote is more typically Democratic, there had not previously been an African-American candidate. In this campaign, the clergy are given responsibility, and they are asking the black community to vote. The black community represents 12% of the population, but it is critical that they are encouraged to vote.”
It does little good to have a message but fail to reach the public you want to reach. To get consumers to identify your brand, you have to wisely choose the media you are going to use. “The use of new technologies and a multi-channel strategy that especially involves the Web are the great successes of the Obama campaign,” notes Serra. The candidate has “used such tools as e-mail marketing (their e-mail list with more than five million contacts has enabled them to refine their segmentation and personalize their messages); mobile marketing; search engine optimizations, social networks; YouTube; advertising on video games; and, of course, the campaign’s own Web site (which brings together all of these tools). All of these have made the Obama campaign a case study in the effectiveness of the new communications media.” Novick also believes that Obama “has used the Internet in a masterly way, taking advantage of the interactivity of that medium, and the viral capacity of social networks. Obama has given the Internet a very central role. The person responsible for his Internet strategy is Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook.” Obama has made oratory a strong point of his communications, says Novick. “It’s become clear at his meetings that Obama has revealed himself to be a great orator, with impressive skills not only at communicating but emotionally moving the public.”
How much do you have to invest in order to create a strong brand? According to Novick, “His campaign has been financed in a very innovative way. Until now, contributions came from companies; some contributions from people in the arts were fewer in number but of higher amounts. Obama has managed to get a large volume of small contributions, which adds up to the record-breaking, spectacular figure of $600 million.” As a result, stresses Novick, “The entire world is praising the Obama campaign but a key difference is their budgets. Obama has invested $600 million but McCain has invested only $84 million. Clearly, the campaign of the Democrats is more imaginative but the key difference is that it had planning and a strategy. McCain minimized the importance of marketing and he accepted federal funding, perhaps because he was aware that he was unable to attract additional funding. In contrast, Obama said at first that he was going to accept federal financing but he found out that he only needed to raise a finger and money poured in. So Obama refused federal financing. McCain saw this as a great betrayal. For Obama, marketing is everything. Nevertheless, McCain is a politician with a great career who thought that his resume was strong enough for him to gain approval (from the public); he underestimated Obama’s potential.”
After several months of campaigning, the only thing left is to see is whether digital marketing wins out over traditional communications media. At the moment, according to Landor, the Obama image is identified with such recognized brands as Starbucks, BMW and Google, which are identified with such values as reliability and international prestige. For his part, John McCain’s image is more identified with Ford or AOL, brands that are anchored in traditional American values. According to the Landor study, if we were talking about fictional characters, Obama would be James Bond and McCain would be a new Jack Bauer (the protagonist of the United States television series “24”).