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You've probably seen some version of this before...

...Hillary as the outdated, clunky and corporate PC, and Obama as the modern, sleek, and independent Macintosh.  It's a meme that might or might not be entirely fair to Hillary -- but one that clearly plays pretty well for Obama.

However, I wanted to draw a slightly different analogy.  The real comparison between Obama and Apple/Mac products are not in the products themselves, but in the way that the products are branded and marketed.

You see, actually I think Apple products are a tiny bit overrated.  I think they make good machines -- but not enough to justify the difference in price point between themselves and their competitors.  Nevertheless, I do own an iPod.  And this reflects on the fact that Apple is able to get away with charging these prices because their marketing is fucking brilliant.  For my money, in fact, Apple has the single strongest brand among American consumers today.  There are very few products that are able to retain a reputation as being independent and customer-centric, at the same time their parent corporation has morphed into a billion-dollar, multinational entity.  Apple is one of these brands; Google is another.  But you'd be hard-pressed to name too many others.  Starbucks works to a certain extent, although it's favorability ratings aren't quite as high as those of Apple.

Barack Obama has that type of brand.  In fact, he is the first politician to fully understand the importance of the candidate as a brand.

Why is this so important?  Because for better or for worse, brands are the way that Americans, particularly young Americans, are used to engaging with their world.  The Obama campaign understands the importance of the language and symbols associated with a brand -- and so they are able to reach people who traditionally tend to be apolitical.  This is a big, underrated part of why Obama has been able to reach new voters in unprecedented numbers.  One way to put it is that Obama is Howard Dean -- but with better marketing.  I hope that does not sound like a put-down to either Obama or Dean.

There are a couple of a priori indicators of a strong brand.  One is that the brand is able to communicate purely with symbols, images, and related words, without mentioning the name of the product itself.  Let's take a look at a couple of examples:

You can barely find the word 'Obama' on this merchandise.  This is extremely untraditional for a political campaign.  The purpose of yard signs, for example, is generally to increase name identification.  But Obama's Iowa yard signs did not even contain his name.  Instead they contained the phrase 'Hope', which is one of several words and phrases ('Change', 'Yes We Can') that the Obama campaign has appropriated more or less successfully.  HOPE = OBAMA.  This is very powerful at a subliminal level.

Another sign of a strong brand is that its consumers take it upon themselves to assist in its marketing.    The restaurant chain Chipotle, for instance, has dozens and dozens of fan sites dedicated to it.  Getting those sorts of hard core loyalists and heavy users is the goal of any marketer.

Of course, politics is inherently a participatory thing, and so it is much more normal for consumers to engage in the making of the brand in politics than in other sorts of activities.  However, with Obama the level of participation is unprecedented.  There are probably millions of people who take time out of their schedules to advocate, donate, or campaign on his behalf.

The best-known example of this sort of user-driven marketing is the "Yes We Can" video -- which, indicatively -- never actually uses Obama's name in the four minutes that it runs.  

Another example is that of a Chicago-based group of artists named CRO, a.k.a. gotellmama.org who produce some fantastic graphic art on Obama's behalf.  It's worth checking out their website if you're a fan of either Obama or  viral art in general.  I see the these guys' posters from time to time as I walk through my neighborhood, and they also throw fantastic fundraising parties at local clubs.

I don't know how much of this branding has to do with the candidate himself, as opposed to his organization.  But they pay attention to this stuff in ways that other candidates do not.  The Obama website, for example, is extremely well done, right down to the choice of fonts.  And they understand the importance of message discipline, whereas Hillary's campaign themes have been all over the board. This had been one of the ways that Republicans were able to beat us from 1994-2004, but Obama can make up that gap.

Are there downsides to being this heavily branded?  Yes, potentially.  'Brand' is an ephemeral, and notoriously hard-to-define concept, but let's step back and think about what a brand is.  What a brand really is a set of expectations and associations in relation to a product.  

The key question is what happens when these expectations are violated in some way.  For example, the Clinton campaign will sometimes put out phraseology like "Whatever happened to the politics of hope" when the Obama campaign goes into contrast/negative mode.  Occasionally, when a brand significantly contradicts its expectations, there can be disastrous results.  One notorious example is New Coke.

However, for the most part, precisely the advantage of a strong brand is that customers tend to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Even if we look at New Coke, for example, we find that it's introduction ultimately resulted in an increase in market share for Coca Cola, once Coke Classic was reintroduced.  Apple took a lot of flack when it slashed prices on the iPhone -- but it was because of the reservoir of goodwill that its brand had built up that it was able to get away with it.  Thus, because of his strong brand, Obama is generally able to go negative without significantly increasing his own negatives.   Of course, continually meeting expectations is hard work, and sometimes the Obama campaign needs to reign itself back in -- as it did after South Carolina.  For the most part, however, it has been a disciplined campaign and has maintained its balance pretty well.

I imagine that some of you are suspicious of the Obama campaign, precisely because it is so strongly branded.  However, the goal here is an electoral victory in November. Obama's brand is a highly useful quality, particuarly for a general election campaign, and it's one of the clearest advantages that his candidacy offers over  those of his opponents.

Originally posted to poblano on Sun Feb 03, 2008 at 12:34 PM PST.

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