Barack Obama used multiple “touch points” and social media platforms to build a brand that helped him win the presidency in 2008. His brand strategy is a case study for marketers interested in developing brands in the New Media Age. President Obama’s branding strategy represents a significant paradigm shift from previous social media strategies and branding. Integrating a company’s website with social media platforms is an essential strategy. What President Obama did differently was to create MyBO.com, a website that functioned as a mini-facebook, a mini-social platform. He pioneered the use of social media in branding. Private companies should study Barack Obama’s strategy to learn how to build a world-class brand almost overnight. This is critical for a marketer today because there are so many products. A strong brand is required for a product to be chosen among many. How does a startup, which is what Barack’s campaign was, build a strong brand with limited capital? Social media has ushered in a new era. Social Media has changed how modern marketing is done—-but a marketer needs a strategy to succeed, and that strategy revolves around the strategic use of multiple “touch points.”
At this point, I believe some essential introductory remarks are required. President Barack Obama is a walking lightning rod. As with any politician, some admire him, and those despise him. This is not a political statement in favor of or against President Obama. The purpose of this article is to discuss social media branding strategy. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, even Barack’s harshest critics agree that his social media strategy was a textbook example of using social media to build a brand.
Please do not interpret my discussion of “brand” as a cynical assessment of our political system and method of electing presidents. Marketers should study political campaigns because they are classic case studies in creating world-class brands. Initially, a large group of candidates emerges in each political cycle. Only one person can be elected. A candidate must quickly differentiate himself or herself from the rest of the political field. The American people are not illiterate. The wisdom of crowds can be seen in American elections. To be elected, a candidate must demonstrate that he is distinct from the other candidates and, if selected, can perform far better than the others in the field. To win the American Presidency, a candidate must be an expert in brand awareness, value proposition creation, and brand positioning. Winning the presidency is analogous to developing a new product and a brand that will allow that product to succeed in the marketplace. This is why researching Barack Obama’s social media strategy is essential. Barack Obama is analogous to a small startup developing a product but limited by name recognition and capital.
Previously, a startup could not afford an extensive advertising campaign to establish its brand. That has changed as a result of social media. Social media have created a “Perfect Storm.” A marketer must have scale and presence to create a brand. Many people must be aware of your product, and a marketer must be able to engage those large numbers when a purchasing decision is made. A marketer can do just that with the help of social media. Approximately one-fourth of the world’s population is a member of a social media site, and most prominent social media platforms are integrated. A marketer can observe what a consumer does during the day using these sights. This tracking enables a marketer to target specific individuals who are interested in the marketer’s product. A marketer can now target an individual at the exact moment that a purchase will be made.
Barack Obama was one of the first prominent marketers to recognize the excellent communication, database management, and tracking capabilities a social media platform provides a marketer. Obama understood he could engage many people at once over many “touch points.” Barack had no name recognition and no money when his campaign began. Hillary Clinton possessed both. Barack recognized the forces unleashed by social media platforms on marketers. He understood, far better than anyone else that his limitations were insignificant. Barack realized that social media platforms gave him the tools to build a significant brand quickly. Before the Obama campaign, social networks were thought to be just that—-social networks. Somewhere you went to hang out with your friends, share pictures, and generally, have fun. In 2004, the Howard Dean campaign used social media to raise funds to a lesser extent than Barack Obama did.
Barack Obama’s campaign was not haphazard. His social media campaign had objectives, plans, and goals. Barack recognized the importance of personal involvement. He designed a website on the scale that would be required. Barack took advantage of some significant structural changes in today’s marketplace. People nowadays do not believe in advertising. People think of their friends. A product is branded and purchased in the new media age when two “friends” talk and make a recommendation. A modern brand must be a “friend” to the consumer to be successful.
Two sources best explain the world in which modern marketers must operate. The Consumer Decision Journey is discussed in the McKinsey Quarterly for June 2009. “Branding in the Digital Age” is the topic of the December 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In both cases, consumers no longer develop brand awareness through a single experience, such as an effective advertising campaign, in the New Media Age. Instead, a brand is formed due to numerous and varied interactions between the brand and the consumer. A brand takes on almost human characteristics in the new media age. In human relationships, the more we have with someone, the more trust we have in that person. We chose our friends to represent their brand. This brand is built on trust. We can always rely on our friends. We know a lot of people, but we only believe our friends. We seek out our “friends” from a large group of people because we can trust them. We recognize that our friends are flawed and that there may be “better” people around, but we seek out our friends because we trust them.
How does this trust grow? Trust is built up over time through a series of experiences. This same principle applies to product branding. Many “touch points” allow us to make friends. Consumers look for products via text, video, blogs, and podcasts on social platforms. A brand is built: through a social media platform that generates numerous and diverse touch points. Barack was aware of this.
A key component of his campaign was creating a website that functioned as a mini-social platform. A supporter or seeker would initially go to MyBO and create a profile. Then, like on Facebook, you decide what you want to do. The sight was there to assist you. It gave supporters the information they needed to organize meetups and fundraisers. It had a database of people to call on Obama’s behalf. The sight enabled people to do what they desired. The insanity had a method to it. The campaign could track the people who were strong supporters using the company.
This information enabled the campaign to recruit more committed volunteers discreetly. The more dedicated volunteers held fundraisers at their homes, calling friends and going door to door. MyBo’s primary function was to connect people who knew each other outside of the campaign, much like Facebook does. For example, if a strong supporter worked at a specific company, the campaign had the names of other employees who were undecided or leaning toward Barack. The supporter could then go to their coworkers and discreetly discuss Barack around the water cooler. Friends conversing with their friends to recommend a product (Barack). This is how Barack Obama’s brand came to be. In social media, this is how products are branded. Barack could brand himself as a “friend” compared to the other candidates—-who were just “candidates.”
As the campaign progressed, supporters began creating texts, videos, photos, and podcasts, which they shared with their friends via various social media platforms. Barack’s website (a social media platform) listed the following numbers:
• The site drew 1.5 million members, organized into 35,000 separate activist groups, each of which could be called INSTANTLY from the campaign headquarters, and assigned specific tasks in rallying support.
• A MILLION phone calls were made on election day. There were maps of the polling places. Supporters have been identified. Rides had been arranged. Absentee ballots were distributed before the election. Millions of new supporters were registered online during the campaign.
• To mobilize volunteers, 150 000 separate meetings were held.
• Campaign supporters uploaded their videos to YouTube. This is important. Individuals created these videos. The videos were posted on one of the most popular websites on the Internet. YouTube viewership rivals that of major cable and home television networks. This additional media exposure was worth $47 million, which the campaign did not have to pay.
• 3 million people contributed $600 million.
There is an important point to note in Barack’s brand building. The Obama campaign handed over the “brand” to supporters. This is an intriguing fact about Barack’s branding strategy. Barack’s branding strategy was well-planned and executed. Adult supervision was provided, but much of his branding was done by individual supporters. This is similar to the Ford Fiesta Movement, which Ford Motor Company used to promote the Ford Fiesta. To create a strong brand in the new media era, the brand has to be given over to supporters to develop among their “friends.”
The development of trust is the hallmark of social media branding. This trust enables a brand to deal with the unexpected. There are no perfect presidential candidates, just as no ideal brands exist. Because of his brand-building strategy and the trust he built, Barack was able to weather storms that occurred in every campaign. People believe in and trust their friends, even when bad things are discovered about them.
Dean and Kerry’s campaigns in 2004 were derailed when stories about their backgrounds began to circulate. Barack was able to deal with adversity during his campaign. Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rescko, and bad Michelle quotes would have been enough to sink many campaigns. Barack could weather these events because voters had placed their trust in him. Many people considered Barack a “friend” who could be trusted. Because trust is built among “friends” in new media, customers continue to buy it even when bad things happen to your brand.
Obama established a brand by establishing a social platform on his website and engaging supporters at numerous touchpoints.
Dean Hambleton is an Englishman.
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