Brand Obama and the Art of Being Human

Obama Superman Joke

There is a growing consensus that to succeed brands need to be “more human”.  Ironically there is a case to be made that this also applies to politicians, business leaders and other celebrities who commonly adopt public personas in line with the stereotypical expectations of their positions.

This tendency is what social psychologists term role behaviour.   For instance, CEO’s are expected to be strategic and results focused, and in public arenas many of them will default to a narrow narrative that highlights these traits.

In contrast Barack Obama has managed to connect with his supporters by showing them different aspects of his character beyond that of the typical statesman ‘script’.  How he has achieved this holds lessons for the management of personal and commercial brands alike.

The case for brand humanity

The reason why brands need to be more human is an entire topic in itself.  Suffice to say support for this viewpoint is widespread.

Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2012 report opens with the section The Future is Human in which is stated “Today’s best brands are in touch with their own humanity and the humanity of others”.

According to Coca-Cola’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent, “Consumers no longer vote for a product or buy a product because it tastes good.  That is not enough any more.  They want to essentially believe in the character of the company.  They want to associate themselves with the character of the company.”

What is known as “the beer test” suggests that Americans also want to “believe in” and “associate themselves with the character” of their choice for president.

The presidential beer test

It is widely held by US political commentators that ever since Ronald Reagan campaigned as “an approachable, open candidate with a straightforward message versus an aloof, stiff opponent mired in detail” that the presidency has been won by the candidate voters would most like to sit down and have a beer with.

For some this is lamentable.  After all shouldn’t we be judging candidates based solely on their policies and leadership abilities?  But human nature being what it is people gravitate towards those they see as charismatic, interesting, amusing, empathetic, passionate and so on.  So it is telling that the most quoted part of Michelle Obama’s Democratic convention speech was her observation “Being President doesn’t change who you are.  It reveals who you are”, because in his first term Barack Obama has gone out of this way to show Americans the various parts of his personality.

It would seem the majority of Americans have liked what they’ve seen.  Despite economic conditions that historical precedence suggests should sink his chances for re-election, Obama is leading in the polls.  According to AFP, no president in 70 years has won an election with the unemployment rate above 7.4 percent (it currently stands at 7.8 percent); a fact that makes Obama’s ascendancy even more remarkable.

This state of play is consistent with much of his presidency.  As reported by Rolling Stone in August 2011, “Despite his lousy approval numbers and an economy that shows no sign of picking up, President Obama still has one big thing going for him: Americans still like the guy.  Polling consistently shows that the majority of Americans view Obama favourably, even while they increasingly disagree with his job performance”.

Brand equity has been likened to a bank account.  Over time some things a brand does are deposits and others withdrawals.  As long as deposits are greater than withdrawals the brand stays healthy and grows.  It can be seen that Obama has been putting enough ‘human credits’ into his account to counter act the economic and other debits.

The brand at the centre of the marketing machine

The notion that people can be seen as brands, and brand management principles applied to them, doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone.   But media from Fast Company to Forbes have recognised ‘Brand Obama’.  And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Obama has been at the centre of one of the world’s most lauded marketing machines.

Obama’s 2008 election campaign was awarded Ad Age’s Marketing Campaign of the Year, beating out such marketing heavyweights as Apple and Nike.  It went on to win two 2009 Cannes grand prixs in the Titanium and Integrated Lions categories, being cited for “a masterful combination of new media, door-to-door and community grass roots campaigning with a clever tactical use of traditional TV advertising”.

Much of the accolades were for the campaign’s pace-setting use of social media.  But, as widely held, quality content is critical for social media success and this was provided by the Obama brand itself.  As political commentator Daniel Greenfield observed, “The approach was to make voters want to be part of the Obama ‘brand’ and not want to be associated with the McCain/Palin brand. The Obama brand was positioned as cool and youthful, in the same way that soft drinks are”.

Additionally ‘Brand Obama’ employed other brand building strategies, in particular communicating a vision.  In this case a vision of “change for the better”, of a better America.  Furthermore this vision was embodied not simply in a slogan but in a credo (think Nike’s ‘Just Do It’) through the campaign line ‘Yes We Can’.

Obama’s techniques for being “more human”

“I confess I’m excited to see Mickey.
It’s always nice to see a world leader with ears bigger than me”.
Barack Obama at Disney World, Florida, January 2012

Building on the proven effectiveness of his election campaign, Obama and his team have throughout his first term repeatedly shown Americans various dimensions of his character and personality to complement that of Obama the statesman.  Delivered through their expert use of social media the result has been a quasi-personal connection with many voters.  As noted by Greenfield, “Social media bestows the celebrity’s illusion of intimacy on everyone…The message sent to a million people that seems as personal as if it were intended for only one”.

Two techniques that have been used to ‘open up’ Obama stand out.

One is creating opportunities for him to show his personal talents.  Obama’s ability to tell a story, deliver a joke (including making fun of himself), and to sing and dance have all become part of his political arsenal. We are used to politicians kissing the proverbial baby, and ‘helping out’ with charities or community groups.  But it is disarming – and engaging – to see them being genuinely entertaining.

The flip side to this has been the technique of framing important issues and events in close personal terms.  Many of Obama’s statements are infused with the viewpoint of the husband, father, or neighbour rather than with the distanced objectivity of a head of state.

Both these techniques make him someone people would like to sit down and have a beer with.  Here are some examples of them.

Dancing with Ellen DeGeneres

Towards the end of his 2008 election campaign Obama danced on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.  In less than a minute Obama demonstrated he had the moves and generated a Youtube video that was viewed millions of times.  This undoubtedly gave the Obama team an insight into how to present their man moving forward.


Singing Al Green

At a fund raiser in early 2012, Obama showed he could also carry a tune by crooning a few words of Al Green’s classic Let’s Stay Together.

A month later, at a White House event and with the encouragement of BB King and Mike Jagger, he again showed his talents with a couple of lines from Sweet Home Chicago.

Slow jamming the news

In April 2012 Obama slow jammed the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with Fallon and his house band The Roots.  (This is a regular occurrence on the show where the band produces a slow R&B rhythm, while Fallon or a guest talks earnestly about something serious.  It is then built into a tune via clever lyrics from the backup singers).

Obama’s topic on the night was his support for an upcoming Congressional vote to extend low interest rates on student loans (which eventually was passed).


Trayvon Martin shooting: “If I had a son”

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in February 2012 ignited a national debate about racism in America.

In his statement on the event Obama chose to be unusually empathetic with his perspectives saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and “when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this”.

While accused by some of politicising the tragedy, most commentators lauded the comment’s symbolic importance towards changing stereotypes of how black men are perceived.

Same-sex marriage position: “…friends, family and neighbours”

Obama is the first President to openly support same-sex marriage.  In the ABC interview announcing his decision he chose to frame his decision around first-hand experiences including reference to “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in… same-sex relationships”.

At an even more personal level he brought his daughters into the narrative:  “You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples…it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently.  It doesn’t make sense to them… and frankly that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated differently, when it comes to the eyes of the law”.

Dealing with hecklers: “Show me some courtesy”

Politicians often have to deal with hecklers.  Their usual tactics are to try to put them down quickly or simply wait until security has removed them.

A final example of how Obama shows his ‘humanity’ is that his default approach to hecklers is one of mutual respect.  Of “I’ll listen to you if you show me the courtesy of listening to me”, as demonstrated in the following video.


End note: Australian parallels

According to a September 2012 Roy Morgan poll Australians prefer the previous leaders of both the Labour and Liberal parties to their current leaders.   The survey has Julia Gillard (22%) trailing Kevin Rudd (34%) and Tony Abbot (19%) behind Malcolm Turnbull (42%).   Both have struggled to connect with the electorate, in particular Abbot who lags behind Gillard as preferred Prime Minister by 37% to 45% even though more people prefer the Liberal party to Labour.

Earlier in the year the Ipsos McKay nationwide “Mind and Mood” study shed some light on the sentiments behind these figures, noting “People haven’t warmed to Gillard…but they are sceptical about Tony Abbot”.  While the research found voters were concerned about of a range of policy issues a key concern was the lack of a “political leader with a clear vision”.  As one respondent put it, “…they’re all a bit of a joke at the moment.  You’ve lost of the characters of years gone by with a bit of charisma”.

Reflecting the public’s desire to see the people behind the political masks, media reactions to Gillard’s uncharacteristically personable appearance on the ABC talk show Q&A in June were almost effusive, with terms like “smart”, “witty”, “feisty”, and “even at times charming” being thrown around.

In contrast – in the absence of any counter-balancing positive insights into his character – recent allegations of Abbott’s aggressive behaviour towards a female opponent when at university over 35 years ago, has significantly dented his standing in the community.

It would appear that both Gillard and Abbot could take a page from the Obama playbook and inject more ‘humanity’ into their brands.

As stated by Cervantes in Don Quixote, “A good name is better than riches”.

Image Credit: The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

If you found this post of interest please Like our Facebook page, Sign In to Follow us on LinkedIn or sign-up to the ‘Follow Blog via Email’ option (at the top right of this page) to stay up to date with future posts.

2 thoughts on “Brand Obama and the Art of Being Human

  1. “Human”‘ yes, but not in the sense of/to the extend of “trying hard to be ‘like them'” or even “popular”. After all, it is the contrast between being ‘the president’, ‘Steve Jobs’, the Queen, ‘the bond king’ (Bill Gross), etc. and then showing a side that is “just like us” which makes the impact. If someone is just ‘a nice gal’, then there will be hardly any of these moments of surprise when “someone famous is human, after all”. It is those moments that truly delight or intrigue us. This Includes the tough edges/bad surprise that shape their character. What would Steve be without his mocking of competitors and stories about how tough a leader he was. Which president still gets more attention and is revered or reviled: Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter? The latter Is considered the most “human” of US presidents…

    • Good points. Totally agree it is the juxtaposition of the fame persona (whatever that may be) with genuine – or at least perceived to be genuine – moments of ‘regular guy’ humanity that speak to us. The observation that it is sometimes more negative aspects of character that show a celebrity’s humanity is particularly interesting in light of current thinking that to be authentic brands should be open to showing their flaws and mistakes. It could be argued that as long as the ‘tough edges’ and ‘bad surprises’ don’t outweigh the ‘good’, or fundamentally contradict someone’s core reason for being, then these imperfections can actually add to their appeal.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s