Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Branding of Obama

Desirée Rogers, President Obama's social secretary, once remarked to the Wall Street Journal: "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand....Our possibilities are endless."

Perhaps not a surprising comment from an MBA and former marketing executive. Yet Naomi Klein, author of the seminal anti-corporate book, No Logo, wrote recently of the dangers of this type of branding, which was once only reserved for corporate advertising. Such political branding is nothing new; one saw it as well with the Bush administration. The former president "had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots." Corporate privatization plagued the Iraq War (branded The War on Terror), from Halliburton supply contracts to the introduction of Blackwater (now re-branded "Xe Services") mercenaries.

But is Obama even worse?

Klein argues that our current president "[favors] the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time." For example, while he announced the end of the aforementioned Iraq War, he followed that with an escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He stated his support for "green" energy initiatives, yet he continues to endorse so-called "clean coal" technology and refuses to tax factory emissions.

[T]his unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede)....Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone...

What do you believe? Is it too soon to judge? Or is the Obama presidency just a political version of "both Coke [the megabrand] and Honest Tea [the upstart]"?

10 comments:

nathans said...

I absolutely belive that Obama is a brand, and an even more powerful one than Bush at that. The picture in this post reminds me that Obama, to my knowledge, is one of the only US presidents to have his face plastered on T- shirts along with inspirational messages like "progress" and "hope".
I remeber that when I was in europe, everyone told me how much they admired President Obama. When I asked why I usually got an answer like "well he's just so inspirational". Obviously they were clueless to what he stood for politically which lead me to believe that Obama is just an icon to them rather than a politician.
As much as I love Obama, I would definitely agree that our president is a brand.

BFlan said...

I agree with Nathan and Naomi Klein that Obama is definitely a brand. So far Obama has been all talk, and has made little actual change. As Klein said, Obama "[favors] the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time." Obama delivers inspiring speeches and has his face on t-shirts, but makes many empty promises. Instead of focusing on improving our country, the Administration focuses on Obama's image and "brand."

Sarah. said...

"The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised...Those kinds of transformative goals are only ever achieved when independent social movements build the numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites. Obama won office by ­capitalising on our profound nostalgia for those kinds of social movements."

As Klein mentions, Obama appealed to the "young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics." I think that was especially true because we had compared the Bush administration's brand to Obama's. Obama also happened to be at the right place at the right time - he appealed to people on a global scale, especially after the financial crisis hit. I don't think what Obama did was right, but I certainly think it was intelligent. With his entourage of Harvard MBA graduates and Facebook creators, he knew how to make our sense of value weaken (as we discussed with the movie, The Corporation just recently) and gave us a way to strengthen it. I do think we (especially me) should have been more intelligent in noticing this brand. To this day, I am still very hopeful about Obama, but I think he should cut-down on both Coke and Honest Tea aspect of his brand.

The question you asked was "Is Obama even worse?" I'm not sure. I don't think being unclear is ever a good thing, especially if you're President, but what Obama managed to do was let a great number of people be hopeful for a few months.

Or if you're like me, a bit longer.

nathans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.D. M. said...

Just like that shiny box labeled iPhone in the Apple store, Obama is a brand. He has a distinct shiny label on his presidency, like Apple does on their products. As Nathan said, his European friends don't have a true reason as to why they like Obama, he is simply "inspirational". Obama is different, as the first African-American President, and shiny too, (just listen to one of his passionate speeches). He draws attention, hence his branding. However under neath Obama's label is a very well educated, elitest, but is he truly Presidential material?

StoneA said...

I do think the Obama administration is a brand. I really like her description of Obama as an anti-wall street, anti-war savior. That does seem like what he was hyped up to be. I think that brands like Obama's are never good. They set impossible standards that can never be achieved. Obama's brand made him out to be an invincible, righteous leader with the ability to conquer any challenge and always make the right choices. HOwever, like Ms. Klein said in her last paragraph, incredible goals can only be achieved with independent social movements, something people forget when their president is hyped up to a god-like status. As her data shows mid way through the article, Obama's brand even influences those across seas. over 90% of Europeans were confident in Obama's ability before he took office, but like Nathan said, most of them probably couldn't explain Obama's stance on important issues. Obama's brand even affected the youth. I noticed a countless number of students supporting Obama solely because of his advertisements and endorsement. I went to a concert just over a year ago, the band strongly supported Obama. At the end of the show they had the audience (14-19) chat "Obama", just another example of the label selling the product instead of the content. I think his "Change" slogan would have helped anyone win the election solely because of the nearly universal hatred for Bush.

Ellie said...

Today in class we saw a podcast by "zefrank" and he defined the method of brands as leaving an aftertaste. I think Obama's "aftertaste" is that of hope a better future - which is hard to resist, thus it is powerful and convincing. I think that the vagueness in Obama's message/ "aftertaste" can be either a good or bad thing. Since the view of hope and prosperity can defined differently, people may percieve Obama's view of a better future as unimpressive. However it can also benefit his presidency because it appeals to everyone.

DPark said...

I definitely think that Obama has become a brand, but I have to disagree with StoneA when he says that "brands like Obama's are never good". I think that his brand has become a brand that is associated with a new, younger generation that hopes to change the world into more "'green' energy" and internationally stable one. I don't think it's worse if it's in terms of Bush's brand, it's just different. I believe that Obama developed this brand as an attempt to redeem America from its present state because past leaders failed to do so.

Sam H said...

It seems odd that a press secretary would allow anyone in Obama's regime to refer to Obama as a brand. To me at least, calling Obama a brand admits that he is merely a culmination of the way his PR secretaries set him up to be, as apposed to a culmination of "progressive" ideas and policies. I guess it just seems weird to me that someone working for Obama would admit that his public image is a construct of his PR reps.

Bob P said...

I agree with Sam that calling Obama a brand is a little weird. His PR secretaries are just using their marketing skills to gain approval of Obama's policies. A brand is defined as "a product, service, or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, or concepts" (whatis.com). This means that Obama no longer stands for the actual president, a person that is relatable to, but a set of values that mainly the younger generations have. I think that this is a clever way to get around any negative aspects of Obama's person, as the Obama brand focuses on the intangible. "Freedom," "change," and "Yes we can" are all part of Obama's brand, and all are things that America stands for that everyone can agree with.