IQ: The Digital Issue

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What's in Store
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Branding the Candidates

Jeremy Villano and Forest Young

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In fairness, our shifting perception of the tech smart candidacy of 2008 may not be because Obama did not deliver on his message of change so much as simply that the digital revolution delivered a whole lot more change into our lives a whole lot faster.

Consider that in 2008 Twitter was just beginning to chirp, iPads were only a rumor, and smartphone users still exuded serious cachet. Four years later, as Obama seeks a second term, Twitter has played a vibrant role in local uprisings and global discourse; iPads are in their third iteration; and it’s two smartphones in every palm. In short, this year’s election is unfolding on a transformed digital playing field —one where Obama’s team can no longer automatically claim control.

Of course it’s not just the media—it’s also the messaging. Re-electing a sitting president is a wholly different journey than vaulting a reformist challenger over the White House gates. So 2012 demands a different storyline and key changes in both style and substance.

Some initial moves have made a lot of sense to us. Yet others have seemed surprisingly tone deaf, weakening Obama’s once-solid authenticity and, in turn, his brand. Even in a climate of constant change, his campaign’s behavior can help us understand the broader realities of managing a digital brand platform these days — political and otherwise.


Obama’s emergence on the national stage was a digital-friendly happening from the start. His team stunned opponents by turning the Web into a fundraising juggernaut, raising more than half a billion dollars online.

But money was only part of the story. The campaign also gathered more than 13 million e-mail addresses. It could instantly reach a million voters via text messages. Its social network,, became the home of two million voter profiles. And its heavy Facebook presence culminated in more than 5.4 million users adding a virtual “I Voted” button to their pages on Election Day, encouraging others to do the same.

The campaign’s digital strategy promoted everything from grassroots variations on its visual identity to a virally promoted speech/song mashup by the artist, taking political brand engagement into new territory. “The technology allows us to build a platform and see if people come,” Julius Genachowski, who served as the campaign’s chief technology adviser, told The Washington Post at the time. And they did.

There was also symbolic value. In a country where personal style matters in presidential politics, Obama’s ease with technology also neutered Sen. John McCain’s stance as a maverick. While McCain confessed to not directly using the Internet much, the BlackBerry anchored at Obama’s hip signaled to voters that Obama was the real maverick, a man of his time.

Everyone knows Obama used the Internet as a stunningly effective tool to raise funds from a large number of individual voters in 2008. But Obama also used it to introduce himself to a war-weary nation palpably yearning for something previously unseen. The young-skewing, tech-embracing audience was self-selected for the kind of messaging Obama developed. Social networks turned his “Yes, we can” mantra into an emotional rallying cry, inspiring individuals and groups who consumed the campaign online.

In effect, digital took existing messages and elevated them, but also shaped and defined the campaign’s strategy. It was a storytelling symbiosis that reflected the Internet’s inherent democracy and participatory, interactive potential.

Social tools also helped the campaign identify those with whom the message resonated the most, the better to mine them for contributions and inspired them to volunteer to register voters, knock on doors, circulate petitions, and raise funds themselves. A wired army of volunteers fanned out across America’s battleground states, inspired by rhetoric and imagery—storytelling—that was largely carried virally across digital platforms. In the end it was a story that resonated, carrying Obama, astonishingly from a 2007 worldview, into office.


What has become of the digital domain while Obama has made the sometimes frustrating transition from Inspirer-in-Chief to sober world leader? Needless to say, Obama’s presidency has seen digital technology steer into the mainstream of everyday life. Unlike in 2008, it’s not an upstart, optional way to convey a message, and platforms continue to mature as they grow. A digital strategy is now widely considered integral to success in the marketplace, and companies as well as candidates vie for primacy as they master the new normal.

Digital’s demographics grow ever broader as the medium evolves and expands. One effect is that fewer voters are likely to perceive web based campaign donations, or interactive campaign apps, as intrinsically novel or symbolic of a candidate’s progressive attitude. Indeed, a candidate overselling his savvy at what is now commonplace technology could easily be labeled as critically out of touch.

Expectations have changed in the digital space since the last campaign. As Obama emerged, user-generated content was mostly offered up in carefree fashion, with little expectation of return from users. But users are increasingly resistant to having their own creations adopted by a cause without their permission or, oftentimes, being compensated. More than ever, being “Internet famous” isn’t typically enough.

Also, the digital terrain is increasingly defined by images, not text — a development underscored by this year’s purchase of Instagram by Facebook. Already, this renders the notion of digital as a go-to medium for detail too expensive to unfurl elsewhere — a text-heavy website detailing a candidate’s platform, for instance — obsolete. It’s up to campaigns to think visual when they go digital, capitalizing on this steady trend.


Whatever the dominant technology of the times, it is not merely the mode of messaging that matters. It is also the messages themselves. Truly historic campaigns seamlessly meld medium and message—FDR mastering the radio broadcast in the Depression, conjuring an image of a national family gathered around a single hearth; the telegenic Kennedy in 1960 coming off cool as a cathode ray in America’s living rooms; or Obama in 2008 leveraging the mass mobilization inherent in social networks. This kind of convergence of medium, message, and messenger represents the apex of political storytelling. Stories organize the atomization, chaos and randomness of our lives into a compelling framework that imbues a sense of purpose. That said, telling the insider’s story is never as obviously compelling—especially in hard times—as weaving a narrative of change.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the place of digital that has moved. As he seeks a second term, Obama finds that the story he’s trying to tell is different—and the answer of how best to use digital platforms for his ends has shifted, too.

As the incumbent, Obama’s 2012 campaign narrative is centered more on accomplishments than aspirations. By its nature, of course, a presidential re-election campaign is not a grassroots effort — and here, Obama’s tactics reflect reality. This time, digital seems to be used less to amass voter allegiance, offer testimonials, depict broad support or freely personalize the campaign’s themes. The story is simply about what Obama has done.

The use of visual media exemplifies where Obama finds himself, and “The Road We’ve Traveled” — a campaign video narrated by Tom Hanks — captures two key shifts. The video, which frames Obama’s first term as an epic triumph over adversity, uses a highly cinematic style long employed in presidential campaign ads, and is bereft of everyday voices or populist themes. Yet most significant is not the video’s style or content, but the campaign’s exclusive use of YouTube to platform it — no major-network TV buys on the one hand, nor interactive invitations to make a “Road We’ve Traveled” of your own, on the other. Even while shifting to a more centralized message, the move is a restatement of the campaign’s faith in digital as a primary delivery platform. And it also illustrates a broader truth for brands: YouTube and similar avenues are now wholly legitimate means by which to tell their stories. Like Obama, the outsider brands have gone inside.

In 2012, Obama knows who his friends are; in part, he needs digital tools to re-energize the supporters he attracted once before.

As a result, a large degree of his campaign resources are being devoted to the less flashy, yet potentially more fruitful, data mining. Inside a large Chicago office, The New York Times has reported analytics and behavioral experts are combing through information gleaned during the last election in order to rouse the faithful and nudge the fence-sitters.

Highly targeted messaging has also gone mainstream since the last election, and Obama’s team has adapted. The campaign has bought advertising space next to a variety of Google searches so far, from “Obama bracket” (during the NCAA playoffs) to “Warren Buffett” (who agrees with the president on aspects of tax policy). An emphasis on targeted digital advertising and heavy analytics could seem like a rather boring maturation of Obama’s more spirited campaign style. But as with its confidence in YouTube, the campaign’s solid belief in digital advertising — with nothing less than The White House at stake —should serve as encouragement for brands lingering on the digital fringes to take the plunge.

Amid the shifts, standard fundraising is still important — both Obama and his challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney, have embraced the Square mobile phone device to quickly and easily harvest donations. But it’s important to remember, for politicians and brands alike, that an embrace of mobile should not be framed as progressive or symbolic. Like with many brands, digital has been deeply integrated into the standard customer (or voter) journey.


Since Obama’s digital strategies greatly aided his winning The White House, why haven’t other presidential candidates simply copied them wholesale? The Washington Post, for instance, noted in April that Obama’s Republican rivals had embraced “the potential of the Internet age” only “to a lesser extent.”

Yet failing to copy Obama’s original digital playbook doesn’t guarantee defeat on Election Day. And the reason speaks to something we talk about often with clients: the principle of authenticity.

That’s because the use of the medium must sync with the time, need, and candidate alike. Mitt Romney, who came to politics after a successful corporate career, embodies a top-down, boardroom-style approach; dynamic, innovative use of digital would mesh unevenly with his overall persona. But so far, Romney’s campaign has struggled to even get the basics down. Their most notable foray into user-generated content — a free “I’m With Mitt” photo-sharing app — proved a disastrous backfire in May, with the misspelling of “America” set in large, on-screen type, providing fodder for his critics and implying that perhaps the candidate wasn’t much for details. (Others noted the app’s “save” icon was that of a floppy disk, conjuring an early 1980s view of technology.)

Obama, meanwhile, finds himself in a tricky pivot. Some of those well-placed digital ads, for instance, are nonetheless drastically off-brand for the august leader of the free world. One of Michelle Obama’s personalized emails declared that she needed voters to “have Barack’s back.” Absent the common touch and digital intimacy that made Obama’s 2008 run feel like a family affair — and without voters enabled to craft hip campaign messages of their own — such casualness comes across as off-key and calculated, lacking the cred the Obama team wants to tout. (Already this year, it’s fallen into the crosshairs of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The preezy is making me queasy,” one critic lamented in The Washington Post.)

In other places, however, the campaign has proven more nimble. By late spring, Obama’s team was present on Pinterest, the web’s fastest-growing social platform. Romney, by contrast, had yet to show up there (other than in parody). However, the authenticity principle could give him a bit of an out here: It’s a natural fit for Obama’s brand, but much less so for Romney. Nonetheless, the difficulty for the president’s main challenger remains in balancing his brand with the need to be present wherever voters manifest in the digital space.


Ironically, digital may return us more to an era in which personal interaction becomes critical to earn votes. It may not enable a politician to shake a hand or kiss a baby, but it can come close. As digital grows, so will voter demands for candidates to use digital to be responsive, relatable, and present in their own world. The Arab Spring of 2011, after all, provided a dramatic example of the criteria by which a new generation weighs the authenticity of leaders.

Will our next president have his or her own Instagram photo-styling app, or sometimes feel compelled to personally tweet out far more candid observations? Could we one day opt to view a candidate through their more pleasing avatar? Might we eventually dissect the implications of a candidate’s promises through a digital overlay applied onto our communities? It all seems a lot more possible now than it did when Obama took the oath of office.

Whatever the next shift, the constant two-way communication afforded by digital platforms fits well into the reality of permanent campaigns. It’s only a few presidents away: We’ll likely elect a candidate who grew up using Twitter, an iPad, and a smartphone. How many innovations will come cascading into our lives every four more years?


    Jeremy Villano is Director, Digital Strategy, Interbrand New York.

    What’s one thing you would change about the world if you could? Jeremy answered: Not a single hungry child, anywhere.
    Forest Young is Design Director, Interbrand New York.

    What’s one thing you would change about the world if you could? Forest answered: Often we doubt our own inherent capacity to do good. So much discussion in our workplace and in the news focuses on scarcity—the finite amount of resources on the planet. Sadly, we overlook the true, limitless capacity for each of us to make a positive and powerful change in people's lives. There is an abundance of these world-changing opportunities.
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