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The marketing of a president

Obama's victory is not only a victory through marketing, it is also a victory for marketing, for the profession as a whole.

“Motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted” (Seth Godin)

Now that we have a President-elect Obama, it’s time to reflect on how this was possible. The Web is full of thoughtful analyses that examine Obama’s victory as one made possible through state-of-the-art marketing--from Tomi T. Ahonen’s “For a We species, a We president: Yes we can,” to John Quech’s “How Better Marketing Elected Barack Obama” in Harvard Business Online, to Seth Godin’s "Marketing Lessons from the US Election," to The New York Times and, of course, the all-inclusive, behind-the-scenes "How He Did It" account in Newsweek.

Yet Obama’s victory is not only a victory through marketing, it is also a victory for marketing, for the profession as a whole. It restored America’s political capital but also America’s reputation as the spiritual home of marketing. It proved all those wrong who asserted the end of American brands and branding in general, and it has given more ammunition to marketers who passionately believe that smart marketing can indeed change the world. And so it goes that I am not only a happy American this week but also a happy marketer.

Every history of marketing must also be a history of America--see the TV series Mad Men--and one might even posit that America’s history is a history of marketing. Seth Godin describes it this way: “The lesson that society should take away about all marketing is a simple one. When you buy a product, you're also buying the marketing. Buy something from a phone telemarketer, you get more phone telemarketers, guaranteed. Buy a gas guzzler and they'll build more. Marketers are simple people...they make what sells. Our culture has purchased (and voted) itself into the place we are today.” Arthur Miller put this more optimistically when he said: “America’s biggest asset is its promise.” The same can be said about marketing.

“Change we can believe in” is the motto of each and every transaction between a brand and its consumers

The Obama campaign leveraged its promise with maximum effect: “Change we can believe in” is the motto of each and every transaction between a brand and its consumers. Buying or buying in always implies the expectation of a positive change--a change in someone’s well being, household, and financial situation or at any other levels of Maslow’s pyramid. But with “Change” as the ultimate promise and “Hope” as the ultimate motivation, the Obama campaign didn’t just generate leads, it created believers. The 7 million names on its lists (e-mail addresses, mobile phone numbers, Facebook and MySpace pages) represent a staggering 11 percent of the approximately 64 million votes the president-elect received. The loyalty of these supporters is of long-term value. Tomi T. Ahonen writes: “The Obama presidency can continue to engage with this active part of his core supporters, return to them at the re-election bid, and even use this support base to help in the elections of his successor in 2016 (assuming Obama is re-elected in 2012).” And in fact, Obama and team are not wasting any time and launched a new site,, right after the election to keep in touch with existing and new supporters during the transition.

All of this illustrates the power of community and provides further evidence that identity trumps utility. A great brand is one that diverts attention away from itself and toward an even greater purpose. That’s exactly what Obama did for the Generation O, which was in it to make history and be part of a movement, a new "we species” with Obama as its first we president.” Combine this political tribalism with an unprecedented level of open-sourced participation, and you have a powerful collaborative platform that outperforms that of any opponent. Obama won because his supporters were more passionate, more dedicated, and more engaged. And it didn’t hurt that he was a candidate they loved.

But what makes the Obama campaign truly unique is how it complemented its open community nature with remarkable on-message rigor. While large components of the action were decentralized, the campaign headquarters provided the central discipline needed to align them when necessary. For the most part it was not, and it felt as if an unwritten code, an impressive self-discipline had ensured notable collective focus and the absence of any drama on the trail.

Disciplined Decentralism

This “Disciplined Decentralism,” as you might call it, is the major takeaway for marketers from the election. It was the foundation of a nationwide (and even global, if you consider the “moral” vote from non-U.S. citizens around the world) campaign that became the first in an age of audience fragmentation to succeed in not only raising maximum awareness for a hitherto unknown brand, but also bringing about radical behavioral change. It has restored the American soft power overnight, as Joseph Nye noted, and it has also rebuilt marketer confidence. Can we marketers orchestrate social media, amateur content, and crowd-sourced platforms with utmost message discipline on a large scale? Yes, we can. Can we reconcile authenticity and consistency? Yes, we can. Can we combine traditional broadcasting ads with low-fi video clips without diluting the message? Yes we can. Can we be our own media channel and bypass media without alienating them? Yes we can. Can we design campaigns that cultivate the small in the big and the big in the small, in other words, campaigns that use direct marketing (phone banking, fundraising) but use them bottom-up and not top-down? Yes we can. Can we be hyper-targeted and still be inclusive and reach out to everyone? Yes we can.

Marketing for the people, with the people, and by the people

Obama has radically altered the marketing playbook, and the astonishing rise of the brand Obama is a template for all marketers from this point on: Weaving together data and human intelligence, collective wisdom and individual charisma, strategic calculus and enthusiasm, the Obama campaign has re-established marketing as marketing for the people, with the people, and by the people. When charismatic leadership meets organizational prowess meets community, the result is marketing that is truly presidential.