Obama shows the way - and the value - of building a brand

Barack Obama is a phenomenon.

Barack Obama is a phenomenon. Not only is the Illinois senator the best political candidate to come along since JFK (and, quite possibly, ever), he has also raised more money than any other campaign in history and put together the best team and campaign in a very long time (and, maybe, ever). On top of those not-so-shabby accomplishments, he has offered the political and the non-political world (if they are paying close attention) a lesson in how to build a brand from the ground up.

Obama has practiced what I call the "Three R's of Branding" - Recognition, Relevance, and Relationship. Without all three, a brand will ultimately fail. However, the three must be created sequentially, each standing on the shoulders of the one before it.

Obama began this presidential race at a severe disadvantage to Hillary Clinton in name recognition alone. Clinton enjoyed nearly universal familiarity, while Obama was significantly lesser-known and had the added disadvantage of an unusual name. He began a methodical process of introducing himself to the American people, beginning with his spellbinding speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. While that platform gave him a boost, he also understood that the only way to close the "recognition gap" with Clinton was to win the Iowa caucus and become a household name overnight through saturation media coverage.

But, as Rudy Giuliani dramatically demonstrated, universal name recognition alone does not win elections. Voters need to know why they should care about you and your campaign. Obama realized that his greatest opportunity to establish his relevance to the voters would be through speeches carried on national TV following each caucus and primary.

He opened his Iowa victory speech with the words, "They said this day would never come..." Who said? The cynics. What day? The day that a black man would be a serious candidate for President, the day that an insurgent underdog would beat the Clinton "machine," or the day that a grassroots movement would shock the establishment? The most important part of Obama's speech was what he didn't say - the blanks he invited us to fill with our own aspirations. In so doing, he allowed us to help him establish his relevance.

But, recognition and relevance are not enough to gain voter support and enthusiasm. Obama needed to establish a relationship with the American people. He did this through the inspired use of a two-letter word: We. "Yes, we can!" Contrast this with Clinton's core campaign message, "I will be ready on Day One." The singular pronoun suggests distance, superiority, aloofness. The plural pronoun lays claim to a relationship.

Obama and his advisers may not have entered this campaign thinking in terms of the "Obama Brand," but building a brand is exactly what they needed to do and have succeeded brilliantly. Whatever happens in the general election, future political candidates and future corporate brand managers will do well to learn the lessons from "Brand Obama" - recognition, relevance, and relationship.

Greg Schneiders is a founding partner of Prime Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping clients understand, plan, and execute change. Greg@primegroupllc.com.

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