What Obama has Learned From Great Advertising

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

His low baritone resonated throughout the Senate Chamber, through TV sets and laptop computers, (where it did slightly less booming on account of the puny speakers.)

Watching from home, I was held rapt by Obama’s renowned speaking style and taken aback by the audience reactions as they were tabulated live on MSNBC.  The distance between “Obama voters” and “McCain voters” was nonexistent, rendering the live graph essentially useless, as it spent the vast majority of the speech pinned to the top, indicating rapturous approval.  It was as though, overnight, Obama’s visions of a post-partisan, unified America had suddenly sprung into being.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that to be true.  But it did get me thinking about how he is able to make appeals that resonate across both sides of the political spectrum.  I realized that this is what we as advertisers strive to do every day – position our products and messages so they resonate with broad swaths of Americans.  

So how do we do it?  And how does it relate to what Obama does?

How brands do it

Just as Obama is responsible for shaping a vision of America, we are responsible for shaping the vision of our brands.  

One of the more useful techniques in the advertiser’s arsenal is the values appeal — shaping the brand message with the values and ethics of our audiences.  The approach is especially timely now.  In a time of economic turmoil, we’re witnessing a shift among consumers as they reorient themselves along more traditional, community values. Vicky Abramson over at iconoculture sums it up nicely:

“External economic forces — bringing daily bad news — combined with personal doubts and fears have caused a reprioritizing of values, moving reality, security and thrift to top spots in the consumer mindset while demoting aspiration, luxury and convenience… The macrotrend with the most momentum in the global village is the safe haven of Friends and Family; a shift to “we” over “me, me, me.”” (via iconowatch)

Many brands have used this technique effectively in the past. Budweiser, Dove, Nike, MasterCard, Johnny Walker, Starbucks… the list goes on.  Crown Royal recently added their name to the list, moving away from their previous, more opulent image to a more down to earth message about knowing your roots and honoring elders.

Slate has a nice write-up on the campaign here.  

As the current economic crisis forces America to reevaluate its direction and refocus on its core values, now is a great time to look at our brands and examine the ideals we stand for.  Modern advertising is about creating not only loyalty, but evangelists.  The key is delivering an authentic message, and then delivering on your promises.  Why would a consumer advocate for your brand?  What would it say about them if they did?

How he does it

Returning to Obama.  Part of his brilliance, according to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley and pioneer of “metaphor theory,” is an ability to frame his policy ideas within “a moral vision of America.”  Moreover, he communicates that vision in what Lakoff calls “The Obama Code.”  

“For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly… Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.” (via fivethirtyeight.com)

Obama’s genius is not in his impeccable delivery or political savvy (though he clearly has those covered), but rather in his ability as a communicator to shape our understanding of America and present his ideas in light of American values and ideals.  As a result, his policies and speeches often seem to carry a moral imperative – a drive that transcends party.

Lines from last night’s speech illustrate this point nicely [emphasis added]:

  • “A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future.”
  • “This time — this time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.”
  • “Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility.
  • “In the next few days, I will submit a budget to Congress. So often, we’ve come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or a laundry list of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America — as a blueprint for our future.”
  • “Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.”

(For those interested, Lakoff has more examples in his open letter.)

Investment, fairness, responsibility, planning, and self-reliance are all deep-seated American values that defy partisan politics.  This is what Obama means when he talks about building consensus.  Though his style is uniquely his own, his techniques for managing “Brand America” are the same used by the best advertisers in the game.

Time and time again, consumers show they are willing to stand up for brands and politicians who represent the ideals and values of their communities. What ideals does your brand stand for?

The following page illustrates additional brand examples and analysis.

(Headline Photo Credit:  wired.com)

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