The Race for the New-Media Nomination

We are watching the first presidential election of the new-media age. Call it election 2.0, if you like. The Obama campaign’s ability to delay — and possibly derail — Clinton’s coronation isn’t just a political headline; it’s a marketing story. Regardless of their political leanings, advertising pros must take notice of new media’s influence on the outcome of this race.

In 2006, blogging and online donations were the game changers. In 2008, we add YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Digg and the like. Obama’s team has benefited more from new-media tactics than Clinton’s team. Naturally, we will wonder if the Obama campaign’s fortune should be attributed to a superior new-media strategy. The answer is more complex than most marketers would like. By all means, study the Obama tactics. They are spot-on. But here is a question that would be more meaningful for our business: How is the Obama brand better suited to the new-media world?

Comparing tactics will tell us little. Site for site and link for link, Clinton, Obama and even McCain all use seemingly identical digital strategies: Facebook and MySpace pages, proprietary social networks and more video than any voter has time to watch. But a casual scrape of public data shows him outpacing her in online donations, social network supporters and videos that have truly gone viral. This is all happening while Obama’s machine spends less per week. The difference is not in the tactics; it is in the brand. Clinton is sold as a consumer product. Obama is packaged as a relationship brand. Clinton is offering features and benefits. Obama is inviting membership. Clinton’s campaign language is transactional, focusing on closing the deal. Obama’s campaign is open ended, inviting commitment in tiers.

At this point, no one can know that one brand works better than the other. Until the primaries are over — or voters in Texas and Ohio decide the nomination — all we can see for ourselves is that the Obama brand instigates more digital chatter.

The value of that chatter is hard to measure. Yet so many marketers seem to want what Obama has — a new-media halo that generates attention and energy for the brand. Debates in marketing departments right now are driven by concern that brands are under-represented in social networks and user-generated content forums. That sort of brand envy is natural because digital chatter is a good index of a brand’s relevance and health. But new-media prosperity is not a practice of smart branding. It is an outcome. The hard work happens in the planning — knowing who you are and telling a compelling story. This is where the Obama campaign has excelled. The Obama brand brief is simple: Change is the concept. “Yes, we can” is the headline. The call to action is “Join us.” This campaign is not selling Obama so much as it is briefing the public on the Obama brand. In our marketing-conscious culture, you connect to the content creators and brand promoters by briefing them into the marketing process.

This is the part where consumer brands get nervous. True innovation requires risk. New-media credibility demands the courage to do your homework and let go. These are not things that come naturally to organizations with a lot to lose. Big-brand marketing organizations often foster a spending culture over one of storytelling. Paying a stable of vendors to manage search, viral, social media, mobile and so forth does not absolve us of our duties if our brand house is not in order. Such an approach has led to insincere new-media efforts that actually erode brand equity. Some examples include “viral” campaigns that are not much more than e-mail blasts, media plans using social networks as blunt reach vehicles and consumer forums monitored with an iron fist. These are the results of old marketing practices applied to new-media tactics. It would be better for brands to not try it at all than do it poorly. Yet the urge to participate is attractive because success looks so glamorous.

That instinct is right. The Obama campaign and other savvy brands understand the transaction is no longer a discreet event. It is a series of low-investment touch points progressing toward conversion. This is the attention economy, where engagement has inherent value. Consumer participation builds brands, creating tolerance in the relationship that evens out natural hot and cold spots in the buying cycle. An election is a fascinating amplification of that principle. Voting is a fleeting moment manifesting all the goodwill and brand affinity created by the candidates in the months prior. Though it is inconvenient to consider, every industry deals with that same uncertainty. Fickle consumers resist reasoned decision making, feeling their way through choices. New media is not critical because it makes us feel good; it is how brands doing great things show the world and capitalize on their investment.

Chad Currie is vp, group creative director at T3 in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at