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Marketing lessons from the Obama campaign

For students of marketing, Barack Obama’s campaign is an excellent marketing case study on positioning and messaging. Here are some lessons I take away from his campaign:

Focus on pain points: Successful marketers are very clear about the customer pain points that their products or services address. Apple improved the lousy experience of buying and listening to digital music with the iPod. And then it improved the lousy experience of web browsing and gaming on mobile devices with the iPhone. So did the Obama campaign. When you sort through all the campaign pronouncements, plans and promises, Obama focused on two main pain points – people are sick of the war in Iraq and ordinary Americans are worried sick about their personal finances. At the outset, Obama defined his campaign around his opposition to the Iraq war. Then, as the financial and housing market crisis deepened, he dialed up his focus on middle-class tax relief.Those are the only two issues he focused on. These pain points were real and they were both areas where his competitor was weak.

Craft a simple message: If you ask any Obama supporter to define what Obama stands for, you will get a three word answer – “hope and change”. This is not an accident.Obama has been hammering away at this message for two years. He has had variants of this message in his stump speech for a long time. At one point, he used to say that “doing the same thing over and over again in Washington and expecting different results is the definition of insanity”. His message of hope goes back to his defining speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he uttered the famous line – “there are no Red States and no Blue States – there are only the United States of America”. Even his message on tax relief was defined in terms of one simple number – “not a penny more in taxes for anyone who makes less than $250,000 a year”. Change plays well to voters who are sick of the way things are going. And hope complements change because it shows voters a vision of a better tomorrow. These were the twin pillars of Obama’s positioning. Hope and Change. Simple to understand and simple to rally around.

Stay the Course: Too often, I see politicians behave like candles in the wind, buffeted by what the focus groups and pollsters are telling them from day to day. I believe that pollsters, led by Mark Penn, were the undoing of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She let pollsters define her in terms of what they thought voters wanted, as opposed to who she really was. The result was a lack of clarity and consistency in her positions. This in turn led to the perception that she was an opportunist who would do anything and say anything to get elected. This is a pity, because Hillary would arguably have been the best president among all the candidates. Later on in the campaign, John MCain shot himself in the foot with his ill-conceived “Maverick” move to “suspend” his campaign and parachute himself into Washington to help solve the financial markets crisis. In retrospect, this will rank as one of the “100 Dumbest Political Moves of All Time”. It made McCain look like an impulsive hothead. It was terribly presumptuous of him to believe that he could be the catalyst to seal the bailout deal. People including myself, were left wondering what McCain would do if, say, North Korea decided to launch a nuclear missile or conduct a nuclear explosion. My take – he would “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb” first and ask questions later.I think we have had one too many gun-slinging cowboys in the White House! Crisis calls for calm. That’s what we saw in Obama. As McCain was rushing off to Washington, Obama didn’t bat an eyelid. He stuck to his message and continued with his campaign as if it was business as usual. To me, this was an important turning point in the campaign because it told voters a lot about his temperament and how he would respond to a “3 A.M.” crisis.

Speak to the heart: Ultimately, I believe no election is about the issues. It is about the person. And no election is about the head. It is about the heart. That’s why Al Gore lost his bid to be president, despite being orders of magnitude more knowledgeable and intelligent than George W. Bush. And that’s why Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan won their bids. People want to be inspired. They want to believe, even if they don’t know what exactly they are being asked to believe in! One of my cousins, who voted for McCain, was incredulous that “no Obama supporter can speak for more than 5 minutes on WHAT Obama would do as President and what this change that he talks about is really about”.But this, I pointed out to him, was exactly the point! People believed in Obama as a person. They were inspired his fresh face and his passion. Did they read his tax plan or his health care plan? How many of us can quote chapter and verse from any candidate’s plans or positions on issues? That’s politics of the head. It will always lose to the politics of the heart. Just as brands that focus on emotional value (think Mini Cooper, Apple, BlackBerry, Singapore Airlines) will always trump brands that focus on functional or economic value.

Target non-consumption: Brilliant marketers don’t just fight for a bigger share of the pie. They expand the pie by bringing new consumers into the market. When Southwest Airlines got started in the early 1970s, it did not compete against airlines. Instead, it took people out of cars and put them on planes by offering dramatically lower prices and point-to-point short haul service. Obama did something similar. While most politicians worry about “energizing the base” (remember the angst that McCain felt at not being able to energize his conservative base). Obama went beyond this and successfully expanded his base. In particular, he focused on two segments who were less engaged with the political process – young voters and African American voters. By inspiring these two segments through the message of hope and change, Obama brought millions of new voters into the political process. And these new voters supported him overwhelmingly.Just look at the candidates’ share of voters by age in Florida, and you can see how Obama won the elusive state.

In summary, most people believe that Obama is a brilliant politician. But to me, Barack Obama is a brilliant marketer. His historic campaign embodied many best practices in marketing. Of course, now we will find out if he can really deliver the goods!

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© 2014 Mohanbir Sawhney.  All Rights Reserved.  mohan@sawhney.org.  

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