Brand Health Check: Barack Obama

Can social media help the US president re-engage with the country's voters.

The question was never whether he would stand, but how he would campaign. This month, Barack Obama kicked off his re-election bid using his tried-and-tested method: social media.

He marked the start of the 2012 race with a two-minute video on YouTube, asking 'Are you in?' An instant email was also fired off to millions of Democrat supporters to ensure they received the news first. Facebook and Twitter updates immediately followed, getting the race firmly under way - despite 566 days remaining until the election on 6 November.

In 2008, Obama's campaign made history for many reasons, not least for the social-media tactics employed. Online campaigning - email especially - raised $600m of the total $750m campaign fund, revealing the collective financial power of small donors. This time, it is reported that $1bn is required.

Virtual 'pressing the flesh' will no doubt once again be central to the campaign, allowing Obama to connect with hearts, minds and wallets on a seemingly personal level. However, while his 2008 'Change we can believe in' slogan was embraced across the US, three years on, Obama's approval ratings have sunk to less than 50%.

So, can Brand Obama once again use social media to help fund and fuel his re-election? We asked Jag Singh, a former presidential adviser, founder of MessageSpace and currently director of digital communications at NO to AV, and Chris Quigley, managing partner at Rubber Republic and founder of digital democracy company Delib.


JAG SINGH - director of digital comms, NO to AV, founder, MessageSpace

Obama's launch campaign features voters explaining why it is important to support the re-election. The message is a binary call to action - 'Are you in?' This time, online trumps traditional channels, suggesting that the immediate focus is on re-activating his base - a group he has been accused of ignoring.

While voters were clamouring for action on the economy, Obama was touring the country talking healthcare. US troops are still 'advising' in Iraq, Osama bin Laden is still MIA, and Guantanamo Bay is still technically operational.

Obama does exceedingly well when he plays the victim - even as frontrunner. We saw it in the primaries against Hillary Clinton and we'll see more over the next 18 months, with the Democrats quietly laying the groundwork to position the as-yet-faceless Republicans as the ones stalling his agenda. No idea what that agenda is, but it can't be bad - it's Obama after all.


- Focus on the economy. Military engagements have a history of distracting presidents from achieving domestic reform agendas.

- Brand Obama: Brand America. The changing demographic landscape means Obama needs to squeeze minority groups for votes - men and Hispanics especially. The piece de resistance for online comms will involve behavioural targeting to focus messaging on less receptive groups.

- Extending the 'Are you in?' theme to the rest of the Democratic Party may be a hard sell, but he must push far into the depths of the Republican states quickly, especially if a centrist Republican (such as Mitt Romney) becomes the opposition frontrunner.

CHRIS QUIGLEY - managing partner, Rubber Republic; founder, Delib

Brand Obama is essentially about being different. Different because he's black; different because he's open; different because he listens; different because he loves shooting hoops.

During the last election, Obama was pitched as a change from the norm of traditional US politics and because of this hope of change, the youth vote helped sweep him to power.

With a clever mix of iconic imagery, memorable slogans and tweeting, Brand Obama tapped into the latent political desires of Young America, and then used social media to spread, amplify and raise money for his brand.

However, as a true 'social brand' - a brand born with the aid of the people - Brand Obama will live and die by the social sword of the people. Also, as the core criteria of any social brand is 'honesty' and 'integrity', I fear the same social energy that brought him to power, may well remove him from power. His record in office is far from what was promised during his campaigning.

I think the most telling bellwether of Obama's chance of survival will be his ability to fundraise effectively online.

As it was, the $600m that was generated online from the micropayments of millions of US citizens was the real powerhouse behind Brand Obama.


- Admit mistakes and show some vulnerability. The social generation loves honesty and openness, and is willing to forgive.

- Focus on local not global. US citizens love apple pie, not baklava. Obama needs to concentrate on what's important to those at home, rather than any global grandstanding.

- Hope Sarah Palin gets nominated.


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