First the White House, Now Cannes

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One of the biggest winners at the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in June was a brand the whole world has quickly grown to love: Barack Obama. Actually it was his presidential campaign, headed up by David Plouffe, that won two major awards. The news sent my thoughts racing.

Although I’m a marketer through and through, for half a second I was taken aback that a presidential campaign was up for some of our industry’s most prestigious awards, let alone winning them. But the truth is, this isn’t the first time marketing has been in play at the highest levels of American politics.

Just a few months after 9/11, the still-early-days Bush administration decided it needed a strategy to refurbish Brand America abroad. What a task that turned out to be! In less than six years, the role of undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs chewed up and spat out three accomplished, high-powered women: Charlotte Beers, Margaret D. Tutwiler and Karen P. Hughes. The last Bush nominee in the post was James K. Glassman, who started in June 2008 and saw the job through to Obama’s inauguration.

What was the net result of all this expertise? Sadly, it was a steady decline in America’s global image, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project report for the years 2001 to 2008.

What a contrast with the efforts of Plouffe, President Obama’s top campaign strategist and the winner of those distinguished awards at Cannes. His man won the presidency not only in the United States, but also in unofficial global opinion polls around the world (not surprisingly, the Pew report graph ticks up for late 2008). The Cannes Titanium Grand Prix “celebrates work that causes the industry to stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward.” The Integrated Grand Prix goes to an innovative campaign that has successfully and creatively incorporated multiple mediums—such as TV, press and the Web.

One could argue that the “product” Bush’s Brand America campaign was charged with was much bigger and tougher to market; though it started with a lot of global goodwill after 9/11, it soon had to contend with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, getting the United States to elect a young, little-known intellectual African-American whose middle name is Hussein was no easy feat.

But what really interests me, as a marketer, is the difference between the two approaches, and what that means for my profession and its clients.

The Brand America task had all the hallmarks of a big old-style marketing case: a huge brand with lots of legacy; a top-down communication strategy (think: “educating consumers”); big budgets and big names. Yet the campaign reaped no real understanding or buy-in from its most important clients: users of new media.
The Obama election campaign read like a challenger assignment: a fresh new brand; an interactive, collaborative approach to communication; deep buy-in and involvement from the top to the grassroots; and smart integration of new media and old media.

New media boosters have championed the Obama campaign’s digital smarts, and David Plouffe himself has pointed to the importance of a state-of-the-art Internet platform and successful management of the technology. At Cannes, he also played up the traditional aspects of the campaign, describing it all as an historic marriage between digital technology and grassroots campaigning. He rated TV advertising as a key part of the campaign as well—though the team flipped that tradition on its head too, putting $3 million toward a single half-hour spot.

One of the most intriguing parts of the case history, though, is the Obama campaign’s focus on specific places and voters. As Plouffe tells it, they deliberately sacrificed reach for target. Remember, the margin of victory in raw numbers wasn’t huge: Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote against McCain’s 46 percent. But thanks to smart targeting, the Obama victory in the electoral college was far bigger: 365 vs. 173.

And not everything that contributed to the Obama victory was masterminded by the Obama campaign itself. Cannes jury president David Droga called the campaign’s leaders curators as much as creators: They created the framework and allowed others to contribute.

What stands out for me is the importance of grassroots. The Obama campaign really figured out how to connect with people and get them actively working for the same purpose. Now the Obama team aims to keep that grassroots momentum going with Organizing for America. OFA is working to leverage the enormous group of e-mail volunteers amassed during the presidential campaign into a giant grassroots policy movement.

This approach certainly worked for the race up to the Big One on Nov. 4, 2008. I know I’m not the only one eager to see whether it will translate into something sustained and substantial over the long haul. If I were a gambler, I’d put my money on grassroots as the rising star of New Marketing.

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