What UK marketers learn from the US presidential election

LONDON - The race for the White House Dubbed the first-ever YouTube election, marked a fresh era in marketing.

What UK marketers learn from the US presidential election

On the night of his historic election victory, Barack Obama's supporters received a text message from the president-elect: 'All this happened because of you. Thanks, Barack.' The US voted for change over experience, galvanising a host of voters to make their voices heard for the very first time.

The presidential election campaign was a prolonged and mighty battle between two megabrands - Barack Obama and John McCain - each with a distinct proposition, image and positioning. Both employed every possible marketing and media tactic, from selling badges and T-shirts on street corners to celebrity endorsement; from negative advertising and knocking copy to the wholesale harnessing of the internet.

The effect was to envelop the US in 'a gigantic bubble of election madness', says Marc Sands, marketing director of Guardian News and Media, who was in New York days before the vote on 4 November.

'The election was everywhere. It was pervasive,' says Sands. 'Marketing has played a role that would be inconceivable in the UK, where political marketing amounts to producing a poster. I didn't see a single traditional election ad during the time I was in New York. What was amazing was the candidates' ability to put out multiple messages in multiple media without diluting their brand images. It was all carefully orchestrated, with no sense that anything was spontaneous or unscripted.'

The pitting of the 73-year-old Vietnam veteran against the 47-year-old African-American was the stuff of Hollywood drama. 'This has been, to some extent, just great TV,' says Steve Harty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York. 'In fact, it was so entertaining that we ran the risk of losing sight of what it was about.'

Although 35% of US households watched the third presidential debate on TV, according to Nielsen, much of the election drama was played out on the internet in what has been dubbed the first YouTube election.

The first intimation of this phenomenon was the Obama Girl video posted on the network early in the race for the Democratic candidacy. Her song, I Got a Crush on Obama, led to a wave of sycophantic postings - and Hillary Clinton just couldn't compete.

Of the myriad ways in which Obama's campaign exploited the internet, however, its fundraising was 'the most amazing', says Kristian Sumners, a freelance creative director based in New York.

In September alone, Obama raised $150m (£93.7m) - almost half the total amount that previous Democratic candidate John Kerry raised for his entire presidential bid in 2004. By the end of September, Obama's campaign coffers totalled more than $600m (£375m). In 2004, Kerry and President George W Bush raised a combined total of $695.7m.

Even more impressive was the high percentage of the funds that came from first-time donors - many in traditionally hard-to-reach groups, such as young people and those with criminal records. 'Obama has appealed to the grass roots, and the internet played a big part in that,' says Harty.

Online fundraising was pioneered in 2004 by Howard Dean, when he ran for the Democratic party nomination. 'It didn't pay off for Dean, but Obama digested it and realised the potential of all the channels,' says Harty. 'His campaign demonstrated that if you have a powerful message, enabling technologies allow you to communicate with millions of people immediately and effectively. Many commercial brands have not fully realised this power.'

Through the web, the Democrats sought to attract many $100 and $200 gifts. 'They gave the little guys a role to play by suggesting they could participate and contribute just by doing whatever they could,' says Harty. 'They created a sense of allowing ordinary people to take back government from the special-interest groups - the lobbyists, fat cats and politicians - who used to control it. That created a huge sense of community, momentum, confidence and inevitability among Democrat voters.'

He adds that '[Money] is the lifeblood of campaigns, [but] what was different this time was that rather than spending a huge amount on conventional advertising, the candidates would put out an ad on You-Tube, which would spread virally and be picked up by the press. As marketers know, press coverage is far more compelling than paid-for ads.'

McCain started off at a disadvantage with regard to the web, admitting early on that he never went online. His target demographic was less likely to be online than Obama's, but between 70% and 80% of the US elector-ate do use the internet. McCain's daughter Meghan's popular website, mccainblogette.com, created street cred with younger Republicans, but it was no match for the Obama campaign's mastery of the medium.

According to Nielsen Online, the total number of video streams viewed via Obama's website increased by 155% between July and August, compared with just 16% for McCain's website. Obama's number of unique video viewers rose by 173% over the period; McCain's by 5%.

Obama's success can also be attributed to his integrated approach to brand building, says John Quelch, Lincoln Filene professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of Greater Good - How Good Marketing  Makes for Better Democracy.

'The internet enables someone to watch TV and respond instantly with a donation rather than waiting for a mail or phone solicitation,' says Quelch. 'But that means TV presentation becomes even more important - and McCain was at a disadvantage there, too.'

However, on the presentation front, McCain started out well, says Howard Belk, co-president and chief creative officer at branding agency Siegel and Gale in New York. 'He took his reputation for straight talking around the country on his campaign bus,' he explains. 'He had a refreshingly irreverent style, said what he believed and took on the establishment and even the Republican Party, as well as the Democrats - a classic challenger brand, if you like. He espoused lofty goals - patriotism, equal opportunity, championing the underdog. Notably, one of his campaign's most successful attacks on Obama was when he portrayed the Democrat as a vacuous, shallow celebrity.

'But when McCain started to fall behind in the polls and got swept up in the financial crisis, he became reactive and slipped into a different communication mode. He stopped talking about the real issues and simple solutions and switched to attack-politics in an attempt to distract people from the economy.'

According to Belk, going on the offensive lost McCain his momentum and voter support. In contrast, Obama stayed on-message, maintaining his equilibrium in the face of personal attacks and projecting the stature of a thoughtful leader. He demonstrated an understanding of who he is and where he is from.

Nevertheless, negative advertising is an accepted feature of US politics. 'It's quite different from the commercial sphere,' says Quelch. 'If Pepsi and Coke ran negative ads against each other, it would put consumers off the category and the soda market would shrink. But in this election, where both candidates were relative unknowns, there were more attacks than usual because each side was painting a picture of the other that they felt the public had a right to see.'

The candidates' choice of running-mates was classic co-branding territory, according to Belk. 'Each partnered a complementary personality who would overcome their own shortcomings and reach new audiences,' he explains. 'It's a good strategy, but it panned out very differently for each. Joe Biden played a narrow and focused role on the Obama ticket - foreign affairs and perhaps the working class. It was clear who was leading and who was supporting. McCain's appointment of Sarah Palin, on the other hand, looked smart initially - she is young and a woman - but she became a bigger focus of media attention than McCain himself, which was confusing.'

Sumners adds: 'The side that generates the headlines and narrative of the campaign tends to lead in the polls. Palin's appointment was a political sleight of hand to try to woo disenfranchised Hillary [Clinton] voters. It created short-term interest and hype, the kind of news that brands thrive on. You could argue that selecting a potential future vice-president shouldn't be a tactical move. But when marketing to a small percentage of swing-voters, such tactics can be enough to win it for you in those states.'

However, celebrity endorsements, of which both parties had an eclectic array, had little effect on their positioning, claims Quelch. 'The exception is Colin Powell's high-level endorsement of Obama two weeks before the election,' he says. 'Having a highly visible member of the sitting president's cabinet, and a man of real principles and character to boot, endorsing the opposition was hugely powerful because it encouraged wavering Republicans to switch their allegiance.'

Similarly, the support of Warren Buffett, the world's richest man and, arguably, shrewdest investor, was a powerful vote of confidence in Obama's ability to manage the US economy.

The election revealed a growing dislike of negative campaigning among voters, and a growing indifference to celebrity endorsement. These trends  are both symptoms of a better-informed electorate, says Harty. 'US citizens are much more sophisticated consumers of politics now.'

This is partly thanks to the internet, where information and opinion spread quickly and polls can be updated by the minute. Many of the biggest stories of the election were broken not by the main-stream news networks but by independent bloggers, or 'citizen journalists', who presented a challenge to the candidates.

Among these was Mayhill Fowler, a 61-year-old blogger from Tennessee who first reported Obama's comments about working-class Pennsylvanians 'clinging to guns and religion' to cope with economic distress. The scoop was a seminal moment for the campaign, which underpinned the Republican positioning of Obama as an Ivy League elitist.

Obama's campaign clearly challenged some received marketing wisdom, notes BBH's Harty. 'The McCain brand was very defined, with clear boundaries and a sense of exclusivity, which is the classic branding approach,' he says. 'The Obama brand was bigger and more open-ended, with more permeable boundaries. Its appeal was a bit like that of Google - accessible, open and with a sense of "why don't you come along for the ride", rather than a direct exhortation to join it.

'The McCain brand was like your local TV station - headline-oriented, opportunistic, local, relevant and responsive, but it had to reach out to people to pull them in.'

One defining feature of the campaign was that it brought both presidential candidates closer to voters. Harty claims that if Obama, in particular, walked into a room of strangers, he would be able to relate to them.

Marketers will no doubt be debating the role of the internet in this historic campaign for years to come. Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, is more simple - that the public has made known its underlying desire for authenticity and integrity at a time when once-trusted and 'safe' institutions such as government and banks are proving so fallible.

Top 10 Marketing moments

1 I Got a Crush on Obama, a cheeky video posted on YouTube by Obama Girl early

in the race for the Democratic candidacy, was the initial intimation of what has been dubbed 'the first YouTube election'.

2 The Yes We Can video, put together as an unofficial piece of viral marketing by hip-hop producer Will.i.am, was an online version of Obama's concession speech for the New Hampshire primary. It went online on 2 February, in time for the Super Tuesday polls, and attracted more than 1m hits a day.

3 Obama's trip to Europe, the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan this summer was designed to burnish his foreign policy credentials. The anchors of the US' main evening TV news programmes, CNBC, CBS and Fox, along with a group of top reporters, went too, guaranteeing three days of 'presidential' news coverage.

4 Obama's announcement of Joe Biden as his running mate via an SMS campaign reached 2.9m people, making him seem cutting-edge, generating lots of press coverage and garnering a valuable database of supporters.

5  Sarah Palin's barnstorming speech at the Republican National Convention on 3 September, soon after her selection as McCain's running mate, was a well-executed act of political theatre. She came over as tough, down-to-earth and likeable, thanks to references to 'hockey moms' and 'Joe six-pack'.

6 In late September, McCain dropped everything to head back to Washington to take part in manoeuvres to ease the financial crisis. With his poll ratings dropping, the move was seen as a cynical attempt to rescue his own standing rather than the economy.

7 'Joe the plumber' became a  national celebrity and symbol of the US working class after challenging Obama about potential tax rises under the Democrats; he became the subject of a McCain ad the next week.

8 In mid-October, McCain and Palin's attacks on Obama over his association with 60s radical Bill Ayers, whom they called a 'terrorist', reached its apotheosis in a TV ad describing Obama as 'too risky for America'. The ad failed to improve McCain's standing in the polls.

9 The endorsement of Obama by Colin Powell, a highly visible member of the sitting president's cabinet, and a man of moral stature, was powerful because it encouraged wavering Republicans to switch their allegiance.

10 Palin appeared on NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live on 18 October alongside Tina Fey, whose impersonation of the Alaska governor has attracted a great deal of attention. Palin came across well and showed an ability to make fun of herself.