Fill-in-the-blank memo: What our marketing team can learn from the Obama campaign

If you are a marketing-type, feel free to fill in the blanks and send this around to the folks in your “group.”

Subject: What our marketing and communications team can learn from Obama’s campaign

Date: [The sooner, the better]
To: [Name of your group here]
From: [Your name here]

In the coming days, you’ll be reading and seeing a flood of reports and “what we can learn” blog posts about the “marketing of Obama.” Those reports will break-down every media buy, every creative strategy, every direct solicitation and database marketing effort, perhaps every word of every speech the candidate made, etc.

Before you read all that analyses, I wanted to share with you a 30,000 ft. view of what I believe are the major lessons our [Name of ‘brand group,’ department, etc.] should look for when reading about the specific tactics or strategies of the campaign. In other words, this memo is not about the executions or technology used. These are major themes that will likely cause the Obama campaign to have a lasting impact on marketing “thinking” that comes after it — including ours.

1. The brand is a narrative:

Too often, the word “brand” is over- or mis-used. When we don’t know what else to call some marketing activity, we’ll say “branding.” We’re so fuzzy about the word brand that people — including some who are receiving this memo — will even start using the word “brand” when they mean graphics. The Obama campaign displayed what a brand is: It’s an overarching narrative. It’s the story that pulls everything together. The Obama “brand” was blessed with a great spokesman who personified the narrative. But the narrative was central to everything the campaign did: creatively, strategically or tactically — even when the spokesman wasn’t present.

2. Brand marketing and direct marketing and online marketing and social media marketing are all the same thing:

Somewhere along the way, marketing people like us decided we couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time — that there is something inherently different and distinct about writing copy for a :30 second spot vs. writing copy for a direct mail solicitation letter. Worse, we started believing a myth that one individual can’t think in “TV” and in “the web” or in video or social media — that each of those are somehow extreme specialties like brain surgery vs. dermatology. The Obama campaign proved that thinking wrong. It was “wholistic” marketing. While, no doubt, the greatest amount of money was spent on TV, there was never a sense that TV was “driving” the campaign and everything else was supporting it. Each medium used — including media not even around when the campaign began (iPhone Apps and Twitter, for example) — was utilized with the same intensity and priority and treated, not like an “extension” of the paid-media campaign, but as a critical component to the overall “brand” that, to at least some supporters, was more important than all of the other activities of the campaign.

3. Don’t focus on features, focus on the narrative:

One of the complaints most professional political pundits (and supporters of his opponents) obsessed over was the lack of specifics in Obama’s plans — that he was just a good speechifier, but not experienced in specific areas of foreign policy or national defense. Such are the complaints of professional political wonks. They, however, don’t realize that focusing on such nut-and-bolts minutae of public policy is like trying to market a computer by describing each and ever part inside the box. Effective marketing is all about the outcome. It’s the problem solved. It’s the need met. It’s about love and pride and hope. And yes, it’s about sizzle. Marketing that works is rarely about the stuff we wonks love to discuss.

4. Don’t let others define us:

While we at [your organization’s name here] would never resort to the type of attack advertising you see in politics, the lesson we should learn from the Obama campaign is this — don’t let any false information in the marketplace sit there without a response. We often think we should be above the fray or that responding only adds credibility to those who may say something about us. While I’m not saying we should respond to every anonymous forum commenter, I do believe we can learn from the Obama campaign that we should be on top of everything being said about us, and if we see something negative gaining any traction, we should respond in a way approapriate to mitigate the impact.

5. Great marketing is not about “I” or “me,” it’s about our [customers, members, users, readers, etc.]:

Going back to the primary campaign, Obama’s message focused on empowering his supporters. He positioned himself against his opponents in a way that reinforced theirs were campagins’ of self-centered ambition; his was a campaign that focused on the aspirations of his supporters. I’m just guessing, but if you compared all the times the candidates used the words “I” “me” “we” or “us,” his opponents would be off the charts on the “I” and “me” usage, while Obama would be at the other end of the chart with his use of the “we” and “us” words. It is a subtle thing, but everytime we try to market our [product, service, etc.] by talking about things that are important to us, rather than talking about our [products, services, organization] in terms of the wants and needs and passions and aspirations of the individuals we serve, we fail.

6. A grassroots movement is incredibly expensive — and valuable:

In the past, the terms “viral” and “grassroots” and “user-generated” seemed to indicate that a marketing effort was less expensive than traditional media — or, more naively, free. Yet the Obama campaign invested tens of millions into providing the “movement” the tools necessary for it to grow and flourish. If you were to show me a startup business that, in two years, could build a database of 3+ million individuals who will contribute more than $200 each online, I’d show you a startup ready to go public with a multi-billion dollar valuation.

One last thing. I hope that you’ll learn from the Obama campaign that anything is possible if enough people believe that, yes they can.

Have a great day.

  • I think some “brands” let their narrative be static. If Apple had done that we would never have had the Ipod. Also, Obama did allow a degree of flexibility–particularly on the drilling issue (I’ll consider drilling in response to more renewable incentives).

    I think given the 2 loses in a row previous to the election, which rocked the Dems they were more united than the GOP which was unraveled before the election and McCain never really recovered. He was never at ease speaking to both sides of the GOP.

    Ultimately, I think Obama’s pragmatic authenticity, inspiring vision, and galvanizing story helped propel the Dems to victory. And this effect was amplified online, particularly in the key segments he won. Great post.

  • Amongst all the fanfare, there is one thing Obama had that nobody else had: Money. He had lots of money. It allowed him to take chances. It allowed him to invest everywhere. He could out-shout when needed. He could buy a 30 minute broadcast ad 🙂

    Was his campaign great? Yes. By having a strong base, he was able to wrangle a lot of cash. With a lot of cash, he could out maneuver everyone.

  • This is one of the most insightful analysis that I’ve read. I’m particularily intrigued by the discussion on narrative and how brand marketing within many industries has focused on ‘Me.’ The generation which Obama connected with as young Americans, the Millennials, are sometimes referred to as the ‘We’ generation. That’s definitely the take away about today’s emerging consumer.

    As a real estate broker, I’m struck by how counter-intuitive much of our industry branding has been in focusing on all the results that ‘I…the Producer/Rainmaker’ have achieved. While this style of marketing may have stoked the ego, it increasingly became a narrative that lacked relevance and failed to resonate in an environment in which a specific and clear Value Proposition to the consumer remained vaguely defined. You’ve made the think today…Thanks.