I just read Ellen McGirt's poignant feature story on "The Brand Called Obama" in Fast Company, and my marketing head is spinning. "The fact that Obama has taken what we thought we knew about politics and turned it into a different game for a different generation is no longer news," she writes, "but what has hardly been examined is the degree to which his success indicates a seismic shift on the business horizon as well." Indeed, Obama has introduced a new brand of politics, and he has caused a paradigm shift that goes beyond politics and marketing and may alter the very fabric of the American society: democratization with the means of the democratized web.
Big impact in small worlds
Many pundits have pointed out that while the Obama campaign has employed traditional one-to-many tactics, spending, for instance, hefty sums on broad TV ads, its more remarkable achievement has been to translate the concept of web 2.0 (or whatever you want to call it), with its collaborative formats, micro-crowds, public deliberation, and social aggregation, into the realm of political communication.
Obama has grasped the nature of the "Distributed Internet" and sent his messages to those (online) venues that are already populated with the audiences he wants to reach. The "Yes We Can" mash-up video by the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am was a free gift for Obama and became a viral hit. The campaign's daily email blasts are smart, to the point, and written in a genuine voice that is credible and non-intrusive. Obama's Facebook group is blossoming. The BarackObama.com site offers widgets, ring tones, photos, and other social media assets that supporters can use to spread the word beyond the site itself and into the self-reinforcing orbit of the social web. And MyBarackObama.com offers fully customizable tools for blogs, mini-social networks, mini-fundraising, and events, etc. At campaign rallies, Obama's team hands out lists to the people waiting in line, asking them to call undecided voters from their cell phones. All of that illustrates the marketing genius at work here: Obama's impact has been so big because the campaign has managed scaling down to the smallest possible level of offline and online engagement.
When your brand's essence is a vector, your base becomes a movement.
The web 2.0 analogy does not end with content production and viral distribution. The "product" Obama itself is a mash-up, a (hyper)-text, a rich media (re)-mix of statements, tunes, vibes, opinions, and facts. Obama embodies what Manuel Castells calls the "networked society," and he not so much taps into the aggregated "wisdom of the crowd" but the collective intelligence of engaged and enlightened citizens. In the Fast Company story, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, another poster boy of the networked society, describes Obama's "adaptive leadership" style: "A leader gets people to do things on their own, through inspiration, respect, and trust. A boss can order you to do things, sure, but you do them because it's part of the contract."
It seems logical then that Obama, in his speeches, has been using the pronoun "we" far more often than "I." This is emblematic of the open-source nature of the Obama conversation. Alan Moore and Tomi T. Ahonen elaborate on Henry Jenkins' comment that "Obama has constructed not so much a campaign as a movement:" "Movements engage people around higher order ideals and beliefs, they ask people to become self-motivated. Barack Obama understands that people want to be part of the process. It's the end of retail politics and the green shoots of networked politics premised upon engagement. Obama says: Yes, you can write your own profile. Yes, you can meet supporters near you. Yes, you can plan and attend events. Yes, you can network with your friends. Yes, you can become a fundraiser. Yes, you can write your own blog. Barack Obama is saying: yes, you can be part of this, you can be part of history. You see people embrace what they create." And who doesn't want to be part of something larger than oneself -- a cause, a network, a movement of like-minded and yet diverse voices? It is this inherent transcendence that lends Obama his power. It is a lesson in how to build brands in the age of hyper-fragmentation: When your brand's essence -- in this case: aspiration -- is a vector, your base becomes a movement.
When your greatest weakness is your biggest strength, you are very hard to beat.
The Obama brand is all software and only a little hardware, and it comes with an open SDK (software developer kit) -- a dynamic, modular platform that both individual campaigners and institutional networks can plug into. Obama's entire campaign is based on the principle of "picture-in-picture web," as Steve Rubel coins it. Or, to borrow another one of Rubel's lines: Obama is a web service, not a web site. He is the "blue ocean" and not the (little) rock. He is, in the dictum of advertising agency Resource Interactive, an "open (on-demand, personal, engaging, and networked) brand" -- a franchise brand that anyone can hijack, re-shape, and remix a la carte. That makes him vulnerable and volatile (think of the "I got a crush on..." video or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright videos on YouTube ) but at the same time powerful and unstoppable. When your greatest weakness is your biggest strength, you are very hard to beat.
It's a remix culture, stupid!
Henry Jenkins argued in his keynote at SXSW Interactive two weeks ago that accusing Obama of plagiarism (as the Clinton camp did when it brought forward that Obama had borrowed words from past speeches of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick) misses the point: It's a remix culture, stupid!
It is thus no coincidence that Norman Lear just announced his initiative Remix America, co-sponsored by the USC Norman Lear Center, Creative Commons, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Kaltura.org, and the American University Center for Social Media. In the spirit of Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody," Remix America is a "multi-partisan" forum that invites Internet users to take clips from the site's "American Playlist" and add other clips and audio to produce their own remix/mash-up vision of America -- as a new platform for patriotic dissent and political commentary.
From Norman Lear's speech at the Take Back America conference: "This country has always been a remix, yesterday's 'melting pot' is today's remix. What did Jefferson and Paine and Adams do but mash up history. Take a little from the Magna Carta, a little from John Locke, and a whole lot of rebellion. Now, thanks to the web and digital technology at Remix America everyone can join in. (....) I see a viral explosion of Born Again Americans, Americans of all ages and ethnicities, conditions and backgrounds, awakening to their power as free citizens in a free society. I see them doing it in 3-4 minute bursts, mixing and mashing their stories and hopes and dreams with the words, images and music from the American Playlist, to give us all a glimpse of the America they wish for."