Sunday, July 6, 2008

Branding and Politics -- Why Are They Ruining Barack Obama's Brand

This is pretty much Part 1 of my previous post. The fact of the matter is that I've been through three passes at trying to encapsulate this post -- another 1000 words yesterday -- but the scope of the topic can so easily creep into this massive gumbo, that it quickly becomes unfocused. So instead, I've decided to pull together some threads that I have found around the web. I think that these help build the framework for the questions that I find most interesting, including building the groundwork for part 2.

First, about the Barack Obama brand and his recent "shift to the center." Arianna Huffington wrote this nice post, Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers, this earlier this week on The Huffington Post. In all honesty, I didn't read it until today because I've been thinking about the same topic, and I wanted to approach it from my own point of view -- but I think that she captures the issues here very cleanly.

Sort of an update: I keep trying to get to posts on this topic -- there's a lot going on about the whole thing -- but my other work activities have got me so busy that I haven't really had time to write. So, as an answer to that, I thought I would just post a couple of interesting links:

Over the weekend there were three good posts on The Daily Kos that roll up the issue of the proposed FISA law update. Each has some interesting observations on the Obama's position on the issue.

In The Dems and Truthiness in the FISA Debate, mcjoan addresses some of the official Democratic party response to the grassroots outrage over support for this legistation.

In Betting it all on criminal wiretapping prosecutions, Kagro X also touches on the response from Democrats who have voted one way for a piece of legistation, then go back to their constituents with a message of how they were really against the legislation.

These are two posts that really underscore one key issue with branding -- although there is a school that seems to believe that if you say that you are fill-in-the-blank, it doesn't matter what you really are, because just saying that you are is equal to brand identity. This approach to brand strategy might have worked when the power to publish was limited and when it was harder for consumers to build communities, organize and make their voices heard, but with the internet and the tools that are available now, the times they are a changing.

In part, the Obama campaign has recognized this -- they connect with it through their fundraising campaigns, their community connection, and their adoption of "the power of small doners to drive their financial engine." But now, with this FISA reform legislation, they have opened up a grassroots version of Pandora's box that they are struggling to gain control of.

You might have seen this already, but recently at Obama's social networking site,, a group urging Obama to "Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity" became the "largest self-organized group" on the site. This prompted Obama to come out with a response to FISA reform and the telecom immunity issue which was also posted on Huffington Post. Jason Linkins has a nice analysis of that with Obama's Response to FISA Critics: A Vital Exchange With An Empty Center.

What you're seeing with all of this is a couple of factors at play:
  1. There is a grass-roots perception that this response is not a principled response, but instead some sort of concessionary response to unknown constituents. Depending upon how conspiratorial that you feel, it could be the moneyed elite, the lobbying telecom companies, his congressional colleagues, or simply just some "inside-the-beltway" spin. It doesn't really matter because, put in simple customer terms, it is clear to this passionate, angry customer segment, the position that Obama is espousing is neither reasoned nor in the interest of the overall brand. To clarify, this isn't a position that represents some strange balance of competing personal interests -- the farmers who want irrigation versus the fishermen who want the Salmon -- this is one of those issues like -- deregulating markets in such a way that Enron can manipulate them and cause rolling black-outs versus the people who are against that. In customer terms, it's like charging the people in coach for food and drinks while giving them to the people in first class while claiming that it's just too costly to support an infrastructure that puts food on the plane.
  2. This approach to depends greatly on the lack of available choices. If the steak restaurant that you like decides to only sell grilled tofu, the odds are still pretty good that you can find an alternative steak restaurant. Modern politics, like many large industries, counts on the "this choice sucks less" position. You want a good airline -- this one sucks less. You want good telecom or internet service -- this one sucks less. It's the same with politics and the idea of "moving to the center." They aren't trying to stand firm on a position. The strategy is to target the market of people who aren't passionate about something and sell them a this one sucks less product.
  3. How Big is The Opposition Vote? The biggest issue at play is a sense of measurement of the size or activitism of the market represented by the web, the people who are active there, and "the netroots." One of the great myths of politics was this idea of "the youth vote." There were a host of candidates that attempted to "engage the youth vote" only to see little or no youth vote show up to vote. Forget about the hows and whys, what's noteworthy about the youth vote is that "engaging it" has basically turned into another round of political pandering. Why does that matter? Because there is a similar sense with the constituency represented by the Internet. How big is that market? Is that 1 million clicks or simply 1 guy in Russia with some sort of software-bot? And there's a big part of that mystery, the inability to connect voices on the net with real human feelings in such a way that organizations not only diffuse bad Word of Mouth publicity, but instead engage it and build positive Word of Mouth responses. In the old days of customer engagement, when some guy was unhappy about his Dell product, he might say "Dell Sucks!" He might even tell his friends. With enough marketing aircover (commercials, PR, etc.), it was easy to sweep one guy -- or a handful of guys -- under the rug. It took a class-action suit to force Iomega to provide customer service. But now, one guy starts a blog like "Dell sucks!" and it isn't just a page. It can quickly grow to be one of the top search results. There are reviews right where customers buy products. Word of Mouth was never this powerful when it was just Mouth.
But let's take a step back from the politics of the issue at hand -- it's certainly easy to get caught up in all of that -- and focus for a moment on how and why, conceptually, this whole issue presents such a challenge. Consider, with all of his campaign funds, with his campaign organization, with polling and survey groups, and a whole host of tools for market analysis, Obama has found himself in this position, advocating a position that is angering a significant portion of his base. So, part of the question that you have to ask yourself, part of the "conventional wisdom" that you have to wonder about, is the idea that something made "problem free" didn't have any problems. Consider, with all of the focus group testing that Hollywood does and the money that they throw around, you'd think that every movie made should have the everything it needs to be a success. So why do so many crappy movies get dumped on the public?

Maybe, what it means in practical terms is that the lowest common denominator -- one size fits all -- is really more about "all sizes fit poorly."

Maybe, as a marketing pro, there's an art to what you do... and an intangible ability to connect with people on a deeper level.

For me, my take-away is that, even among people who seem very in-tune with Internet technologies and marketing, it's easy to underestimate (or utterly dismiss) the power of the Long Tail and about just how deeply people connect -- when you reach them in their unique niche.

Oh, and I got caught up in writing some of this and I almost forgot to include this link to this Netroots Rising post on Crooks and I haven't read the book, but it looks like might an interesting study in the dynamics of the relationship between candidates and their Internet base.

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