What CMO’s Can Learn From the Obama Campaign — Part 2

June 9, 2009

In an earlier Blog post, I asked the question “Can politics teach Marketers anything?” and answered with some learnings from David Plouffe, the chief architect of President Obama’s election campaign. Plouffe recently spoke at the M50 CMO Summit I attended.  To summarize that post, I said Marketers could learn two important lessons from the Obama campaign:

  1. The importance of staking out a brand position and sticking with it. Consistency counts.
  2. The ability to leverage the brand’s strategic message across all relevent marketing touchpoints in a coordinated and integrated manner.

These are Marketing truths often forgotten in even the best Marketing organizations. But what else can we learn from the Obama campaign?

Brand Obama: A Consistent Message Across Media Channels

Brand Obama: An Authentic and Transparent Brand

Plouffe outlined how transparency and authenticity, both of which are discussed in depth in the excellent book “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online,” were the twin character traits to the Obama campaign. In Marketing terms, these would be Obama’s “Brand Character,” or personality. The two are related and both speak to what is required for a brand — Obama or otherwise — to inspire trust and confidence.


Obama, according to Plouffe, wanted the campaign to be “authentic.” Over time, they learned — sometimes painfully — about authenticity and what it really meant to voters. When Will I Am came forward with the idea for his “We Are The Ones” song, the original idea was for the Obama campaign to produce and promote it. While control can be a good thing, Obama rejected the offer because he felt it wouldn’t be authentic. So Will I Am produced the song and it was a huge YouTube sensation with 3.5 million views–an authentic tribute to Obama.

In another example, Plouffe developed short video clips explaining to supporters various campaign topics–e.g. the Obama strategy in Florida; how they would use the web; etc. After several low production hand-held videos, someone in the campaign naturally decided the videos there was a need for more professional video. This led to new slicker, high production value video–which immediately prompted a barrage of complaints from supporters. Low tech was good–and authentic.


Plouffe held a contrarian view when it came to campaign strategy and tactics–to be completely open and transparent with supporters.  He did so with the full knowledge that the McCain campaign would ultimately see the communications and understand the Obama strategy. He felt the benefits outweighed the risks. 

Example:  the Florida strategy. Plouffe developed a video which outlined exactly how they intended to win supporters, how much money they would need, and how it would be spent. Of course, the Republicans learned what the Democrats would do in Florida. But transparency was part of brand Obama and the video helped energize and ultimately win the Florida campaign.

Interestingly, the Obama administration is now extending transparency beyond the campaign with the launch of Data.gov, a website designed to disseminate government data to voters

What Marketers Can Learn

First, understand your consumer.  The Obama campaign understood that American voters were looking for authenticity and transparency in their president. Like good Marketers, they understood their consumer–and had a clearly defined brand character to address their needs.

Second, communicate in an authentic manner.  Authentic means honest, real and not manufactured–adhering to facts and supported by experience. The Obama campaign had a clear message, but beyond this, they communicated in a tone and style that increased the believability of their message.

Third, communicate with transparency.  Transparency means telling people exactly what’s happening and what they would like to know–even when there is some risk in doing so. Obama’s strategy for Florida was very clear to Democratic supporters–and Republicans as well.

So what did Obama gain with authenticity and transparency ? Trust and confidence. When people believe they are being told the full story, they’re treated as adults, and being told the truth, they’re more likely to trust and have confidence–something in very short supply for many brands these days.

The Responsible Way to Improve Your Marketing

June 1, 2009

What’s a small player to do when facing behemoths in a heavily marketed category ? How do you stake out a credible position when the category benefit is already “owned” by the big guys ? One approach is to discover and exploit a unique and compelling consumer insight.

Insurance is a dull category that yearns for creative Marketing–hence the Cavemen, Ducks, Lizards, NBA stars, etc. Everyone knows the category benefit (security) and each firm has a different way of expressing it. There’s Allstate’s advertising “You’re in good hands with Allstate;”  and of course, State Farm is still mining their decades old advertising slogan “Like a good neighbour, State Farm is there;”   etc.  And, of course, there’s AFLAC and GEICO. In the land of insurance behemoths, what’s a small player to do ?

Liberty Mutual Print Advertising -- Using A Great Insight

Liberty Mutual Print Advertising -- Using A Great Insight

How about discover and exploit a compelling consumer insight ? That’s exactly what Liberty Mutual has done with the “responsibility” insight. Like most great insights, it’s so simple that when you hear it, you think: “I knew that.” In fact, as Jack Trout points out in his book “In Search of the Obvious,” good ideas are simple, understandable, easy to explain, and intuitive. The insight:  most consumers think insurance companies frequently don’t do the right thing. Everyone has either a firsthand experience or a story from a friend or family member of an insurance company doing the wrong thing.

In my case, it was 1976 and I was driving my parents Volkswagen way too fast when the road changed from pavement to gravel. I fearlessly tried to negotiate a sharp turn at 60 mph., but the car skidded sideways and rolled over multiple times onto a public golf course.  Some golfers on the 9th hole rescued me from the car, where I was hanging upside down  in the shoulder harness — unhurt.  In this case,  State Farm did the wrong thing by cancelling my parents insurance — after 20+ years of family accident free driving !

Liberty Mutual stakes out the bold claim that it’s the insurance company that does the responsible thing — and by inference, that others may be less so.  My favorite Liberty Mutual ad  focuses on a parent doing the right thing after school with the kids.

And not only have they used this insight in their ads, they’ve now exploited it as THE marketing idea with the “Responsibility Project.”  Liberty Mutual has extended beyond ads into social media, as their web site invites consumers to share their stories of people doing the right thing and behaving in a responsible way–a great way to engage consumers and reinforce their brand benefit in the process.

Paul Alexander, head of marketing for Liberty Mutual, says: 

In a category where you find geckos, cavemen, hot dogs without a bun, and Flo taking you down the “Dave” isle, we believe there is room for a brand to have a serious conversation about responsibility with it’s consumers and customers.  More importantly, we do not want to come across as preachy or finger-wagging.  Rather, we want to encourage a conversation, especially around issues where there is more than one right answer.

So what’s the lesson here ? When you can’t easily differentiate based on your benefit, consider the possibility of identifying and leveraging a unique consumer insight. Developing great consumer insights is hard work. There are  several excellent books on the topic, including “Hitting the Sweet Spot: How Consumer Insights Can Inspire Better Marketing and Advertising.”

The most important learning here is to relentlessly focus on understanding your consumer and developing great insights. It’s the responsible thing to do, and in the best cases, yields better marketing plans and even better business results.

What CMO’s Can Learn From the Obama Campaign — Part 1

May 28, 2009

Can politics teach Marketers anything ?  David Plouffe, the architect of President Obama’s election campaign, recently spoke at the M50 CMO Summit I attended. Sitting at the intersection of Marketing and politics, Plouffe had some interesting thoughts about the Presidential campaign that are highly relevant for Marketers.

Much has already been written about the Obama campaigns innovative usage of social media, and what business can learn from it. It’s true that they led with new media (e.g. Twitter, MyBarackObama.com, etc.) and used the various tools to great advantage. But listening to Plouffe, it’s clear there are other important lessons as well.

Brand Obama: A Consistent Message Across Media Channels

Brand Obama: A Consistent Message Across Media Channels

Plouffe described the two pillars of Obama’s campaign as “message” and “strategy.” Message was what Obama stood for–his “brand,” including his policy positions on health care, the environment, economy, etc.  Strategy was about where to play and how to win choices–e.g. contest the swing states,  leverage the web, how and where to communicate the message, etc.

The Message

Plouffe talked at length about how Obama’s message was non-negotiable. Obama defined the message based on his beliefs and policy positions, and then it was communicated clearly and consistently throughout the entire campaign organization. Everyone in the campaign–from the candidate himself down to the ground-level volunteers knocking on doors, had the same basic understanding of the message and what Obama stood for. There was one and only one message.

The Media

The campaign “media” strategy was to be where the voters were. Every meaningful media channel was used if it could help communicate the message to target voters: community events, e-mail, door-to-door, candidate interviews, etc. And importantly, the message was coordinated across media channels on a daily basis. If the message of the day was about health care, everyone from top to bottom knew the daily health care message and exactly what they were supposed to communicate.

What Marketers Can Learn

The Obama campaign approach above illustrates good basic Marketing principles. Define your value proposition and communicate it effectively. For me, though, what really stands out about their plans are two things:

First, was their consistent and disciplined message communication. The Obama campaign had a clear message, and they stayed with it. They even had a key brand visual. No significant changes or deviations. McCain, by contrast, careened from message to message. The lesson: brand message consistency and focus are important. Decide what you want your brand to stand for and stick with it. Otherwise, you’ll stand for not much of anything. For more on this topic, the Branding Strategy Insider had an excellent recent post on the importance of brand consistency.

Second, the campaign drove the same message across multiple media on a daily basis.  This magnified and multiplied the impact of the message as it reverberated across the media channels. Voters heard the same message from multiple sources via different channels on a daily basis: Obama’s speech, a David Axelrod interview, a voter registration effort, TV ads–they all carried the same message at the same time.

The Obama campaign was a model of strategic focus and message management coordination. Marketers could learn from the campaign by sticking with a focused brand message and leveraging the message throughout their marketing mix.