The Marketing of the President

“The Marketing of the President.” Sounds like the theme from an earlier edition of the Harbus. After all, barring death, resignation, or impeachment, Obama will remain in power until at least January 2013. However, marketing remains critical to his Presidency; Obama’s popularity and accomplishments will depend on how he reshapes his campaign’s message going forward. As Obama the candidate shifts to Obama the President, he faces the unenviable task of adapting a successful brand to a new situation.

As a candidate, Barack Obama presented a consistent message of “Change” and “Hope” with rhetoric focused on participation of the electorate and transparency in government. He cultivated support through the Internet as well as traditional media and converted it into fundraising dollars and a coalition of supporters. As with the Dove campaign, Obama relied on his customers to embrace and pass on his message. As a result, his campaign received the donations of approximately three million Americans, 1% of the population, and 53% of the popular vote.

Following Obama’s Inauguration, I sat down with HBS Professor John Deighton and Research Associate Leora Kornfeld, authors of the HBS Case “Obama versus Clinton: The YouTube Primary” to discuss the President’s marketing strategy. Experts in the marketing of ‘Candidate Obama,’ both offered insights into how his campaign used marketing as an effective political tool and its implications. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

HARBUS: With the campaign over, will Obama’s message of ‘change’ change?

JD: [Georgetown Professor and expert on technology and politics] Garrett Graff spoke to this directly. He has said that the Administration will be the continuation of the campaign.

LK: ‘Obama 2.0’ is being used a lot in the press.

JD: They have got this large database that was used to mobilize for the candidate. The question is now, ‘Why not use this for support for the President’s agenda?’ There is, of course, a minor issue that the databases used in campaigns must be kept separate from government bodies, but I am sure they will find a way to work around that. The big opportunity is to use the database of supporters to focus the attention of legislators who might otherwise be opposed to his administrations’ programs. The campaign showed that you can coordinate a small pocket of passion and allow its impact to reverberate across the media and across the political spectrum in a way that’s very difficult to do using telephone trees or direct mail.

LK: In the movie Milk [in which Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States], he explains, “It’s not about me, the movement is the candidate.” It’s about completely changing the way of being and the way the country is going to be. mobilizing movements faster. in a nanosecond.

JD: People often compare Obama to John Kennedy. But it’s really kind of striking to think that Kennedy was in national office for 14 years as a Congressman and two-term Senator before he had enough credibility and national presence to run for President. Obama had 2 years. I think that serves as a nice metric for ‘Internet Time.’

It has to be said that [the Internet] is a 1-way medium. It is not a dialogue. A lot of the spin suggests it’s a medium for the discussion of policy but I don’t think I saw anything in the primary or the campaign that was a dialogue. It’s more about mobilizing for a cause.

LK: There was the perception of dialogue in that people felt reflected. Their postings online were made visible and seemed to spur the conversation forward.

JD: And what happens when people who felt reflected don’t feel their opinions were acted on? Will they turn against the President or will they fall into line? There is something very militaristic about this movement. It calls to mind the idea of obedience.

HARBUS: What do you think this means in terms of Obama’s use of this coalition going forward?

JD: The most effective change in my view will be the ability to forge consensus in Congress by applying constituent pressure on people who might not otherwise get onboard. And this could be on the “D” side or the “R” side. he can send an email to a congressional district and mobilize constituents to act. He can get 5,000 people to show up outside the office. But it does rely on the compliance of the movement.

This new style of marketing has implications for politics and marketing in general. We must consider the mobilization of enthusiasm and passion. It is not a new way of learning but a new way of mobilizing although it is still very much dictated from the center to the periphery. Going to work in the early days, this gives the President more political clout than other Presidents were able to have the old way. The trouble is people thinking they are part of the administration, instead of just his foot soldiers.

HARBUS: Hillary Clinton’s campaign was criticized for sending too many emails to supporters. Do you think that the Obama campaign will reach a similar saturation point?

JD: My critique of the Clinton thing is that it affected a ‘false familiarity’ with its voter. The kind of schmaltz that works very well in television comes off jarring when it comes into your inbox. The Obama team worked in a more targeted way — extremely focused on action and not being entertainment. Because they were very instrumental in their actions, they would either be very relevant or completely irrelevant. If it was relevant to the recipient, then there was action. If it was irrelevant, there would be no response, so they would, presumably, stop.
Marketing, in general, is notorious for over-mailing or over-spamming. The direct industry is known as the 2% industry. You can make a lot of money from a 2% response rate. We are learning from this campaign how to maintain a high response rate, in the order of 40-50 percent. We are doing this because the people on the campaign are reaching out and sending the message onward.

HARBUS: What do you think are the policy implications of Obama’s marketing strategy?

JD: Before we go to the policy issues, wouldn’t it be the case that the more power a President has, the less he has to compromise on policy for the sake of popularity? So he’s a true leader?

What is the reason we are sort of appalled by politician who are expedient? If you want leadership, I think you want the communication tools that allow leaders to sell their policies. If they don’t have the communications tools so they can sell, they are going to tailor policies that are easier to sell.

Is this a good selling medium? One thinks of selling as a very interactive process when you encourage, you nurture objections from the buyer and you respond to objections in a nurturing way. This is not a two-way medium. I do think we are seeing a medium that will fail us at some point.

LK: What do you mean?

JD: Maybe I should have said this is not a conversational medium. You have a one way street. Until that third response occurs, this situation is just like a reply back coupon.

LK: I’m not sure if you can say it only goes one way. Look at the twittering Motrin moms. [In November, Motrin released an online ad starting with the premise “Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion” that offended mothers who spoke quickly and strongly against it.] What might have been a one-way conversation turned into a dialogue when they mobilized against the campaign. Look at how quickly they got that campaign pulled.

JD: Fair enough, it’s a veto power. Not a subtle communication. But you are not selling sophisticated policies that way. It is, shall we say, more democratic than what preceded it. However, I think the pendulum is swinging too much in that direction. That is what the Motrin mom’s show. I think it’s an over-reaction to a relatively small group of people.

HARBUS: This election cycle has incited more conversation that others in recent history, especially among HBS students. What do you think of this popularization of political discourse?

JD: What I think of is the 1960s, the notion of a teach-in. I think we now have the technology to do that on a much larger scale. But there is something frightening about that era. The Maoist movement is that same sentiment taken to a larger extreme. Marxists cells had the same ability making the price of independence ostracism.

LK: The power of community could work against you. The same people who were for you can easily be mobilized to turn against you.

HARBUS: In his first four days, Obama has issued a number of proclamations of transparency. But his edict to the Attorney General and the Chief Technology Officer are only useful if people are reading what they disclose.

JD: That said, many of my colleagues, like [HLS Professor] Charlie Nesson see this as a new age. He was trying to suggest to me that this was a new flowering of democracy. This is a man who lives his life on the Internet. he just thinks the world is a better place if the world is transparent.

LK: In this age, it’s harder to keep secrets. If he doesn’t post it, someone else is going to, and that same network is going to get it and shoot it out.

JD: In the world before everyone had an impression management frontier that was quite far from the person. I think the general drift has been to bring that impression management frontier closer to the central of the self, making it much more difficult to create a sense of false self.

LK: Imagine all the information there would have been had we had the Internet earlier. People would have had other places to turn rather than relying solely on Walter Cronkite or Life magazine for the story. You can’t keep a lid on information. There is way too much data to sift through.

JD: There is way too much data, not enough information.

HARBUS: Do you think that this proliferation of data is this a management mechanism?

LK: If you think of what [Internet technology expert] Clay Shirky says. Just the way the web works, the more people who link to what you post, it will be higher on the list and someone will be more likely to click on it.

JD: My impression is that it does not work. The discovery process has become way more valuable to plaintiffs than defendants. There is more there to discover and ultimately when all else fails, authenticity is the last resort even of scoundrels.

There is a lot to be said for truth as a strategy.

February 2, 2009
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