“Change”, “Romnesia”, and “Four More Years”: The Marketing Strategies of the 2012 US Presidental Election

When analysing Obama’s campaign from a marketing perspective, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe he’s the most well managed brand on the planet.  As you’d expect, he’s got the best of the best strategists, analysers, and marketing experts. But with both Romney and Obama spending in excess of a billion dollars on their respective campaigns, how did Romney’s team get it so wrong?

Firstly, Obama’s slogan “Change” was much stronger than Romney’s “Believe in America”. Change, when relating to politics, is a word that infers a positive outlook; “things will be done”, “our problems will be solved”, “all our issues will go away”. What does “Believe in America” imply? That people don’t believe in America? Why don’t you believe in America? ‘Belief’ isn’t going to fix America, but ‘change’ will.

Secondly, every successful brand has its own intriguing story, it’s even better if that story can invoke some admiration or empathy. Well, Obama was born to a middle class Kenyan father and English mother, was involved in gangs and drug use during his teens, reformed to attend and graduate from Havard, then went on to become the first African American president in United States’ history. What’s Romney’s story? A multi-millionairre Mormon businessman from Salt Lake City, who is friends with other megarich entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump. Romney’s team made no substantial attempt to change this; to provide Romney with another dimension for potential voters. They definitely weren’t aided by Romney stating he liked firing people or the “$10,000 bet” brain-melt. His money-orientated approach of reduced taxes to the wealthy, only further cemented him as the mega-rich mormon in the minds of voters.

Thirdly, Romney didn’t successfully establish a point of difference, instead spending most of the campaign attacking Obama for things he hasn’t done. With America over 20 million unemployed and debt in excess of 70% of the GDP, if Romney had established and executed his point of difference (business experience), the election should have been his. Obama has never worked in the private sector, whereas Romney has a vast amount of business experience. Brands don’t beat the competition by trying to denigrate their opposition, they do it by offering a positive concept and exploiting the fact that the opposition lacks this.

Finally, Obama’s team executed a sophisticated social media plan, whereas Romney’s looked like it may have been controlled by the 65 year old businessman himself. Romney and his advisers stated that Obama’s campaign was wrapped up in petty catch-phrases and internet fads at a time when voters were preoccupied with much larger issues. At an October 19 rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, Romney accused Obama of running an “incredible shrinking campaign” based on “silly word games”, saying he had no agenda for the future. Oh, how wrong Romney was.

Obama’s strategic social media campaign did a number of things for his campaign: it gave a voice/interaction to voters, one which spoke in a quirky social media tongue (“This seat’s taken”); It kept the campaign real-time and immediate; embraced celebrity endorsers: Beyonce, Fergie and Madonna all actively pushed the Obama brand on social media – offering an attractive dimension to the brand; and it reinforced the campaign’s overall message – using Twitter and Facebook to constantly publish quotes, policies, and statistics in Obama’s favour.

Perhaps the most effective social media tactic by Team Obama was the “Romnesia” hashtag. Within 24 hours of President Barack Obama dubbing Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s policy shifts as “Romnesia“, #Romnesia was trending worldwide on Twitter. At its peak, Romnesia was mentioned in more than 18,000 tweets per hour. This powerful, yet subtle form of persuasion left Romney for dead in the social media arena. In contrast, Romney’s social media campaign instigated very little of these effective tactics, aside from the bizarre speech from Clint Eastwood, which went viral for all the wrong reasons.

In any field it’s never easy for the incoming challenger to dismantle the established leader, but Romney had a great chance.  Romney’s campaign ignored several vital marketing laws: the law of perception (how you want to be received by an audience), the law of focus (staying true to a small number of strong principles, rather than trying to do everything at once); the law of the opposite (positioning yourself as different to the leader); and the law of sacrifice (giving up something in order to be competitive elsewhere).

The infinite variety of cross-tabulations and subsets of data, provided by research, frequently lead political consultants and marketers to overcomplicate the message of their campaign. However, it is programs that recognize the power of simplicity and consistency that most often succeed.

In future, I suggest the Republicans orientate their marketing in the same vein as their politics: conservative.


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