Washington Matters


The Global Reach of Brand Obama



The morning after America elected Barack Obama to be its next president, I surfed through the news shows and found poet Maya Angelou reflecting on what the victory meant to her. She then recited her classic, "Still I Rise." Her voice and tone transformed a poem of pride and defiance, a hymn to endurance, into an ode to the joy of achievement. It was as if she were actually experiencing that rising -- that an abstract, far away notion had turned real, overwhelming her with awe. And in my apartment, I felt that despite the stark differences in how we view the nation, I could relate to Angelou's sense not just of triumph, but of having arrived.

For me, an African living in America, (more specifically, a Nigerian national, born into the '80s-era of coup d'etats and military rule) Obama's victory provided an inclusiveness that I had never truly felt. Yes, many immigrants like me were well-educated and successful. But when my friends -- first generation Americans, international students, temporary workers -- and I discussed our experiences, we shared a feeling that there would always be an invisible realm that we could not enter. Until Obama was elected president.

As I began to see the special relevance an Obama presidency could have in my life and that of other African immigrants, I also realized there were hundreds of millions more from myriad backgrounds worldwide who also found that some aspect of his story related to them.

These feelings are not an accidental or spontaneous phenomenon. Rather, they are the result of a carefully thought out and implemented marketing effort that turned an upstart dark horse campaign into a grass-roots movement and then into a global brand at least as formidable as a Coca-Cola or Nike.

The Obama campaign used marketing cues employed by multinational giants, starting with a clear consistent message, and then using a broad, yet intimate appeal to a mass audience. His message was tailored just enough to appeal to subsets of the electorate, but still broadly enough not to alienate others. "He's able to be just black enough, just smart enough, just educated enough. His identity is almost everything," explains Americus Reed II, a professor at The Wharton School.

Obama understood his audience and the new and various tools available to reach them -- and connect them to him and to one another. In fact, Obama and his team pulled off such a state of the art job of crafting and getting across that image that the campaign won't just be studied by future candidates and political professionals, but by businesses and marketing experts. Fast Company magazine called the branding effort "a case study of where the American marketplace -- and, potentially, the global one -- is moving."

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But the true test of the brand's resilience will come after the speeches end and the last steps are danced at the inaugural balls: Can Obama deliver the promise of change that is the heart of his brand and that won him the backing of most Americans and admiration across the world? Whatever happens after Jan. 20  will dictate the next step in the evolution of brand Obama. Like with any advertised product, the actual experience with what you have bought will define the reality -- hope can only last so long and must eventually give way to either fulfillment or disappointment.

So for most Americans, the day after Obama's inauguration carries significant weight because his actions will set the tone for his presidency and how the U.S. is perceived by the rest of the world. But because I held no stake in this country to begin with, the day after Barack Obama's election will always matter more.




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