Barack Obama has won a much deserved and long-fought campaign. Everyone will be talking for weeks about the reason why — political trends, economic slumps, Sarah Palin, etc., but I think we all need to realise that Obama has successfully run the first truly 21st century campaign, and thereby the first branded campaign. That is the principal reason for his victory.
Branding – We’ve talked about this before but it’s worth restating: Obama’s branding was brilliant. I’m not talking about just his logo, but the entire concept of creating an all-encompassing graphic identity around a candidate. The level of control and consistency of the Obama campaign is on par with any corporate brand around the world. The typography, colours, symbols, and copy all reflect his core values and the campaign ethos: change, progress, hope, and possibility. This is also the first time in history that a campaign used a symbol by itself rather than a typographic mark for the candidate’s name. A quick view back through time will show how many Presidential campaigns simply used Helvetica as their “logo”. Innovation in branding is certainly to be rewarded.
He’s the first candidate, actually, who’s had a coherent, top-to-bottom, 360-degree system at work … And he seems to be able to do it in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Houston and San Antonio. Every time you look, all those signs are perfect. Graphic designers like me don’t understand how it’s happening. It’s unprecedented and inconceivable to us. The people in the know are flabbergasted.
— Michael Bierut, Pentagram
You can be certain that this will be the model going forward. We will see every candidate branded and packaged, almost like a consumer product, complete with semi-abstract logo and cross-media design styles.
A non-standard, off-brand Obama/Biden sign. Looks like a cheap imitation, right? That’s proof they did a good job.
The Internet – For the past three of four Presidential campaigns, an Internet presence has been mandatory. Candidate websites, jam-packed with photos and bios and lots of smiling faces are no longer enough to wow the electorate, as we’ve proved. Since 2003, blogs have been standard for keeping people informed and showing that there are, in fact, people running a campaign, not simply a series of demonic puppeteers.
But the most significant leverage of the Internet has been in fundraising. Following Howard Dean’s trend in 2004, Obama raised more money online than any other candidate in history — most of it in small increments, average $80. The ability to reach many, anonymous, and younger voters has been the absolute difference, it was something John McCain failed to do, leaving him out of touch with the new generation of voters, and their money.
Web 2.0 – Keeping in touch via Internet has evolved, even since 2004. Obama’s campaign was the first to capitalise on the new tools of communication such as Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to send up-to-the-minute news to followers and potential voters. They even announced Joe Biden as a VP choice via text message (although that affair was botched slightly). The decision to go Web 2.0 isn’t merely the choice to send text messages, it’s the metaphorical choice to be a part of something new, to embrace new technology and innovation and realise that the world in changing. Nothing embodied the disparity between Obama and McCain as their acceptance of the modern world. McCain admits he doesn’t even use a computer. Nuff said.
Restraint – As with any good brand, tough decisions have to be made about what not to do. It’s easy to throw an animated banner of every website and to use huge red letters on every sign, but that doesn’t fit the brand. Every deviation hurts the brand, and the message. Likewise, Obama knew how to hold back politically. Rather than going for the easy kill, Obama stayed on message through to the end, almost to the point of repetitive stress. And when he was forced to go negative, it was only to defend his perceived truth and attack John McCain’s proposed plans. He never said “John McCain is a bad man” or “Sarah Palin is dangerous”. Restraint, in this case, is the moral high road. Obviously, it worked.
Obama’s “His Choice” ad doesn’t even mention Sarah Palin by name. This is restraint executed brilliantly.
The Ground Game – Perhaps the most stunning, and the most impactful tactic of Obama’s campaign was his ability to turn hordes of everyday citizens into brand ambassadors. Perhaps because of his background as a community organiser, Obama has been able to mobilise regular folks in the hope to convert other folks to the cause. His messages and ideas on tax structure, health care, foreign policy, etc., were presented so clearly and concisely that every volunteer could deliver the gospel with little or no training. Because the brand was so strong, it spread among the people — every hand-made sign and jack-o-lantern was a tool in the ground game. The campaign also decided that it was important to spend money not on lawn signs and bumper stickers, but on opening campaign offices and employing paid staff to get those boots on the ground, so to speak. And it paid off. The ability of these staffers and volunteers to register and persuade voters in greater numbers than ever before proved to be the difference. With most first-time voters going for Obama, as well as Latinos and Blacks who ordinarily don’t vote, it was critical to get out and knock on doors to spread the word. Again, it goes back to the brand.
You can’t tell me this isn’t inspiring. Regular folks, not political pros.
Obama has set the bar extremely high for Presidential campaigns. Raising $700 million over 21 months, his campaign shattered the previous requirements for what wins the White House. But has it gone too far?
Television advertising is by far the biggest expenditure in campaigning. Without it, we’d be able to run national campaigns with a few million dollars. Canada, for example, restricts campaign spend to $20 million total! That’s what both campaigns spent on television ads during the Olympics alone! In Britain, campaigns are barred from advertising on TV, and the result is that campaigns are severely low-key — it takes some real on-the-street campaigning to get any message out.
TV isn’t just expensive, it’s old-fashioned. The one-directional shouting match that is advertising is going out of fashion with the new generation, in favour of video shorts, music videos, interviews, documentaries, and even comedy sketches. All delivered via Internet, of course. A popular video on YouTube will spread faster than a TV commercial which you have to sit in from the the TV and wait to see. But the numbers aren’t quite there for online video, and with a nation of 300+ million viewers to reach, it’s unfortunate that TV won’t be dying overnight.
Yes We Can music video, by Will.I.Am was one of the most striking and moving videos of the campaign never aired on TV, and wasn’t even produced by the Obama Campaign. A sure sign of things to come.
The trouble is that Obama has talked about traditional politics and the broken system and business as usual in Washington. Part of that included the very naked premise that one can’t run for President without gargantuan sums of money. In one sense, Obama has disproved that — his campaign was funded by the people, not by corporate interests — but it was in fact well-funded. Ideas and philosophies of government often take second seat to the ability to raise funds. A perverted hurdle in American Politics. The most apparent example of this is during the primaries when less popular candidates, often with great ideas, are forced to drop out due to lack of funds and the inability to get their face out in public via expensive TV ads. Maybe primary campaigns should be capped, or ad buy restricted to after a nominee is chosen.
I don’t have all the answers. And this isn’t a political blog. But the moral here is the same one I’ve been pushing for years: clear, cohesive, consistent brands are a powerful thing. Embrace the brand.
UPDATE: One thing I forgot to mention — people like to say his name: O-baam-ah. It’s soothing.