Creating an Effective Brand: How President Obama Used Social Media to Create a Brand


To create a modern brand a marketer must have a “conversation” among “friends “. Okay, now just how does a marketer create those “friendships” to have those “conversations” to create those strong, effective, brands? A case study in how to do this is the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008.

At the beginning of this article I want to state this misnomer. President Obama is a lightning rod. Some people love him and some people hate him, but even his biggest detractors have to admit that his social media strategy was a classic. Marketers should study this campaign because it is a tutorial on how modern products must be branded. I hope that the reader will focus on the marketing and not the politics.

Barack Obama is a classic case in how a brand can be created in a New Media Age. To win the American presidency a candidate must have a great deal of money and a great deal of name recognition—a brand. If a candidate does not have a brand, if voters do not know who you are, you are not going to be elected. If a marketer cannot distinguish their product in the market place, that product will not be bought. This is why modern marketers should study the Obama campaign. Before the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama had no money and was unknown. By contrast, Hillary Clinton was a well-known senator from a large state. During 2006-2007, it was a foregone conclusion that Hilary would win the Democratic nomination She and her husband had created a vast political network to draw from, and she a lot of money—she had a strong brand. Barack had no brand; even in his own household. When Barack broached a potential candidacy to Michelle, her response was, “This is the craziest thing you ever said to me. Nobody is going to beat Hilary this year…Get over it, kid”. Barack and his team did have knowledge of social media and how to use it in a campaign. This knowledge was his biggest asset. auktionscenter-fyn.dk
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The campaign of 2008 is analogous to the modern market place. In times past, it was very hard, and very costly to create a new product and brand it. This is why social media is such an important element in modern marketing. A social media campaign allows a new product to be created and branded in the market place quickly, at very little cost. The modern market place is best explained by author Shiv Singh. There has been a change in the market place. No longer are consumers interested in engaging with large impersonal brands. Consumers do not trust brands any longer—they trust their friends. In a recent survey conducted by The Economist half the respondents stated that they don’t trust big business. They trust the recommendations of their friends. Leveraging the recommendations of friends is the way to create brands. This is the reason why the use of social media is so critical to branding. Through social media, friends meet, conversations happen, and brands are created.

This means that if a product is going to be selected, the brand must become a “friend” to its consumer. This is what the Obama Campaign did and the way that he did this should be studied by marketers because it is a case study in how to create modern brands using social media. By combining social media that creates micro-targeting, force multipliers are created that are needed to create world-class brands.

The knowledge of the modern market place allowed Barack and his team to quickly develop a strong brand and overcome the Clinton campaign. At this point, I would like to clear up an error that I made in a previous article. Recently, I wrote an article entitled, “The Perfect Storm: Why Companies Should Adopt Social Media Marketing as the Center of Their Marketing”. In this article, I identified David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager as an original member of the Facebook management team. This was an error. The Obama staff member that I was thinking of was Chris Hughes, who served as the Obama Campaign Director of Online Organizing. Mr. Hughes had a great influence on the campaign social media strategy.

Let me summarize what the Obama campaign did to brand itself:

• They had a goal
• They created the scale to achieve this goal
• They made their platforms easy to find, and fun to use and navigate
• They channeled online enthusiasm into specific, targeted activities that furthered the campaigns goals
• Integrated online advocacy into every element of the campaign

The Obama campaign was not the first campaign to use social media. They were the first to co-ordinate social media with an entire campaign. They were the first to organize the use of social media. For social media to work, it has to be organized. John McCain and Howard Dean used the medium before Obama, but Obama and his staff was able to integrate and organize social media into every area of the campaign in a seamless way. Because of this Barak was able to create “conversations” that engaged. He created enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm his sight created was smart enthusiasm. He used social media sights in a way that targeted supporters and voters. This targeting allowed him to understand the important metrics that he needed to know in order to win his campaign. He was able to target and focus on his true supporters.

The strength of Obama’s social media branding approach is that it was constructed to make and develop “friendships”. This is important for marketers to realize. When you meet someone there is a veil between you and that person. As you get to know each other better, the veil comes down. As your relationship develops, trust develops, and deeper conversations begin. These conversations bring about deeper relationships on a human level. On a marketing level, these relationships become strong brands.

The Obama campaign knew that it had to engage people, but that engagement had to be based on trust. The Obama engaged people in what it called “the ladder”. You engage one step at a time, build the relationship deeper, and each step is a higher level of commitment—a ladder. The steps of the ladder are based on the comfort level of the individual in relation to the campaign. A marketer would call these steps creating touch points.

The first touch point would be Personal. This is the point at which a marketer and customer first come into contact and “friend” one another on a platform like Facebook. In the Obama case, it was at this stage when people are getting to know one another. A person signs ups for messages and emails. The next touch point is Social. It is this touch point that people start making posts or comments to a friend’s profile about your product. At this touch point, a friend explains to their friend why a product is a good thing. In the Obama campaign, these profiles integrated with their web site. At the Website, a supporter may create an account. In the marketing area, an organization would integrate with a Facebook or Twitter. At this point, a customer may feel comfortable enough with a brand to join a “group” or create a “group”.

In the Obama campaign, the next stage would be to become an Advocate. To drive interest, pictures may be posted, blogs written, or a video may be created and posted to You Tube, for instance. There are analogies in the advocate stage for a marketer trying to converse about the product with a “friend” (a customer) and vice versa. It is in the advocate stage that a supporter might have now feel committed enough to Obama to host an event, ask friends to donate money, or to register to vote. In the Advocate stage, in a marketing situation, a person might talk to a friend and recommend a product, creating a brand.

The next stage is the Empowering stage. This stage is for serious supporters of Obama. Here a supporter gets heavily involved. The campaign tracked volunteers and could target its most reliable supporters.

These committed people could create social and fundraising groups on MyBO Web site. The Obama campaign could now organize their own networks of supporters that gave supporters access to the Obama database, from which they could pull phone numbers for doing phone banking from their living rooms. In reading this article, a marketer has to make an analogy with what the Obama campaign did to what each marketer can do with their own brand to increase engagement with their customers. Perhaps some organizations could offer discounts to their customers if they introduce their friends to the marketers and solidify the brand. Here a marketer can be flexible in their own situation to extend their brand.

The reason why social media platforms are so popular is that friends now have the means to share video, blogs, pictures, and posts with their friends. This is a god-send for marketers as they try to create and expand their brand. Ford Motor Company just did this in an effective campaign to introduce their new car, the Fiesta. Ford called this the Fiesta Project. In the same way that Ford extended brand awareness for the Fiesta, the Obama campaign provided source material for user-generated content. Here is where scale comes into play. The reason why Ford’s and Obama’s campaign was so effective was because they both had the scale for “friends” to “converse” to create the brand. This is why the planning stage is so important in creating a brand. As Napolean said, “Every army has a plan until the first shot is fired”. A marketing campaign is chaotic. Things happen. A marketer has to be flexible. The reason Ford’s and Obama ‘s social media campaign was so successful was because there was planning and enough scale was created to engage “friends”.

In the case of the Obama campaign, its web site, MyBO contained videos, speeches, photos and how-to guides that gave people the raw materials they needed to create their own compelling content in support of Obama. In return, supporters created more than 400,000 pro-Obama videos and posted them to YouTube. They also wrote more than 400,000 blog posts on the MyBO Web site. A modern marketer has to engage their customers to create compelling content for the company that creates brand awareness. This is why social media is important in creating modern brands. A company is going to have a hard time in doing this, left to their own devices and more importantly, finances. In the case of Ford, Ford did not spend any money on their Fiesta launch. Fiesta had a great presence on social media sights, but the presence was created by private individuals. When the Fiesta was launched, 38% of the target market was aware of the car.

This is the reason why both the Obama and the Ford campaigns were so successful. According to Edelman’s 2008 Trust Barometer, the most trusted source of information is consistently from a “person like yourself”.

The next step in the later that created brand for the Obama campaign was the integration that took place between MyBO and the social media platforms. In the case of the Obama campaign, its website served as the hub for electoral activities, with spokes that reached to an array of platforms, all of which drove conversation back to the Web site in order to engage the people, empower the voices, raise the money and get the boots on the ground needed to win the election. This again is a scale issue that involves planning. A marketer must have a common source to integrate with social media because there are so many social media sites. If a brand is to engage with friends, the conversation must be fun, easy, and simple. This takes scale.

The Obama made the search for content easy. What good is great content if it can’t be found? According to Google, 90% of searches are taken from the first page. The Obama campaign understood that you have to be on page 1 to be found. For this reason, it created simple Web sites with the URLs of popular search items to increase the likelihood that they would appear at the top of the search results.

The ease of navigation was an important issue in developing brand for the Obama campaign. In any campaign, something happens beyond the candidate’s control. Sometimes these happening derail campaigns. In 2004, the “Swifties” derailed John Kerry’s campaign because he did not have a means to control in the negative information flow. In March of 2008, with the nomination seemingly in the bag, the issue of Jeremiah Wright appeared. This issue was enough to sink most campaigns. Because of his branding and his presence on social media, Barack was able to offset this.

The opposition created videos criticizing Obama. The campaign replied by releasing videos that used the same tags so that its positive response could be found when people searched for the original. The campaign understood that most people on YouTube use “related videos” to find what to watch. By mimicking tags, people were more likely to find the Obama response alongside the original critique. The campaign understood that more than one-third of the public does not distinguish between organic search results and paid search ads. It aggressively purchased search ads to increase the likelihood that users would be driven to friendly information.

An important reason why the Jeremiah Wright issue did not destroy the Obama campaign is that Barack knew what people were thinking because his own interaction and presence on the different sights. To derail the controversy, Barack knew a major speech on race had to be given. In his speech, Barack knew exactly what had to be said to derail the controversy. Barack’s social media strategy allowed him to communicate with the public in real time. He was able to turn a real negative, into an absolute positive.


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