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Obama has strayed from campaign message

by Gary Kaskowitz

July 26, 2010
Originally published in The Morning Call

Is America experiencing buyer's remorse? To Barack Obama, it sure might seem like this.

President Obama ran one of the most successful political campaigns in history to win the presidency with 53 percent of the vote. When he was inaugurated, his job approval hovered at 69 percent. Yet now, according to a Rasmussen Poll, nation's voters who strongly approve of the way Barack Obama is performing his role as president is only 27 percent, compared with 44 percent who strongly disapprove.

Unfortunately for President Obama, it gets worse. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, voters in the 18-34 age group would hypothetically vote for a generic Republican by 37 percent to Obama's 34 percent.

What's happened?

Through the course of my research and teaching, I have explored the popularity of brands and when and why marketing works. When President Obama's situation is looked at through a marketer's eyes, his current predicament makes perfect sense. Obama's political campaign was absolutely brilliant. He successfully marketed himself to rise from obscurity to win the presidency. He successfully beat better-known and initially better-funded competition. He captured market dominance in a relatively ignored political market segment — the youth vote.

Obama was able to do this through better marketing strategies than other politicians. Lest we forget, at the end of the day politics, like most of life, can be boiled down to marketing terms. If you want to be truly successful at what you do, first understand what others deeply desire and then show them how you deliver this value to them. Successful marketers and politicians show how their brand promise is more valuable than their competitor's. The best marketers do this at a very visceral and emotional level. The best marketers get you so emotionally attached to themselves, their products and their stories that you feel they are truly part of your personal story as well.

This is what Obama did so well throughout his campaign. He understood the emotions and needs of his core audience and delivered the story they wanted to hear. In the process he positioned himself as the sole solution to the problem his core audience felt. He took advantage of naturally occurring conflicts that the youth vote (and later others) were feeling and convinced these insiders that he was central to them reconciling the problem.

Herein lies the rub. The fact that Obama was so effective in gaining the emotional loyalty of his core audience is now backfiring after he "made the sale." The key to creating strong emotional loyalty for your brand is to make an attitude — not a person or direct competitor — your enemy. When Obama first entered the race, he successfully positioned himself as the Washington outsider who didn't believe in politics as usual. He attacked the mindset that many Americans felt of being powerless at the hands of the government. He suggested that he would be the "adult in the room" and, by supporting him we could create true change. He played to millenials' inherent desire of being heard, working together and making a difference.

These are very powerful and emotional marketing techniques. Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama was able to gain incredible loyalty and adoring fans by strongly appealing to people's emotions (as any marketer will tell you people buy on emotion and justify with reason) and fastidiously managing all aspects of his brand story. Yet, once elected, a president loses control over the brand. Still the voting public does not forget the brand promise.

Because Obama was so successful in his branding efforts as a candidate, the voting public expected much. If you campaign as an outsider, then you surely had better not act as a typical politician.

I suggest that over the last several months, President Obama has been off-message. His slow reaction to the Gulf oil crisis caused many to question the leadership he campaigned on. His attacks of individuals and parties are not congruent with a mindset being the enemy, not the person. Those who were his strongest supporters are the most likely to feel dissonance if, as president, Obama doesn't act the same way he did as candidate.

In marketing, the higher the expectations, the harder the judgment. You must stay true to your message, especially after you've made the sale.

Gary Kaskowitz is an associate professor of management at Moravian College and author of "Brand It Like Barack! How Barack Obama sold himself to America and what you can learn from this."