The Decline of the Obama Brand, by Billy McCormac
In the March 1999 issue of The New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell examined advertising and its role in the cultural evolution of the hair color industry in America. Toward the end of the essay, he states, rather matter-of-factly, that “commercials come with products attached, and products offer something that songs and poems and political movements and radical ideologies do not, which is an immediate and affordable means of transformation.”
An immediate and affordable means of transformation. For many consumer products this is indeed the central brand promise. Toddle off to the drugstore, buy a bottle of hair dye for 10 dollars and voil?, you’re a new person and the world is your oyster. Change is just that quick, easy and gratifying.
When he burst on to the scene, Barack Obama was unlike anything the American voting public had ever seen or heard. He was more than just a political candidate; he was a lifestyle. And he was rolled out in what felt more like a corporate, nationwide product launch than your run-of-the-mill political campaign.
There was the “O” logo, the product-placement-like ads embedded in video games, as well as the numerous celebrity endorsements and appearances on prime time TV-shows. The brand promise, articulated ad nauseam, pushed and pulled in every imaginable channel and splashed on everything from bumper stickers and baseball caps to buttons and boxer shorts, echoed across the nation: Hope and Change.[# More #]
As with other consumer brands that speak to the owner’s social stratum and tax bracket, displaying Obama-branded gear communicated a distinct set of values and beliefs to one’s environment. Two Obama supporters could meet for the first time and need little or no introduction before striking up a conversation. All the information they needed was coded into the DNA of the campaign brick-a-brack adorning their person or possessions.
The brand promise was simple. Barack Obama represented everything a Bush-fatigued progressive wanted to be: a smart, hip, hoop-shooting Ivy League-intellectual who made tons of money but still managed to “keep it real.” He was a new breed and he was going to change Washington-forever.
No more business as usual. No more partisan bickering. No more red states and no more blue states. All ideas were welcome. Things were going to get done – and they were going to get done together. And talk about bang for your buck! All you had to do was cast a vote. Barack Obama was going to prove Malcolm Gladwell wrong: political movements could offer an immediate and affordable means of transformation.
Two years later, Hope and Change are spent, empty slogans. The Democratic Party has suffered an historic defeat and witnessed devastatingly low voter turnout and enthusiasm in the midterm elections. Worse still, Barack Obama’s popularity is headed to Bushville with the pedal to the metal. Why? Simply put, they failed to deliver on the brand promise. The country became more divided than ever. Partisan bickering appeared to be at an all-time high. The marketplace of ideas was closed due to lack of interest. The political discourse seemed noisy, rancorous and vicious. Everyone was talking and no one was listening.
The cynical read is that Obama has done everything in his power to deliver Hope and Change to America, but that the Republicans have done everything in their power to stop him. Perhaps. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that Barack Obama made a fatal mistake that’s cost many hotshot companies their reputation and customer base: he became ordinary and bland. There was no longer any way to differentiate him from other politicians. His brand had promised a lifestyle it couldn’t deliver. And when you can’t deliver on your brand promise, well, people start shopping around for someone who can.