Managing the Obama Brand

Diluting the Brand
Diluting the Brand

On our monthly trek to points of interests in the heart of DC, we were bombarded by almost nonstop imagery of President Barack Obama. Everywhere we went there was a kiosk hawking Obama gear, or an ad that tied into the language and imagery of his highly successful Presidential campaign. And for some reason I could not help but think of the legendary rock band Kiss. The Gene Simmons doll, to be more specific. But before I digress, some background.

According to Core Brand, a global brand consulting firm,  “The work that happens after a brand has been established is as important as the planning that went into establishing it in the first place.”

President Obama, after a two year struggle to win the Presidency by positioning himself as the post-partisan candidate of change, now finds himself in the position of having to defend his brand:

White House lawyers want to control the use of the president’s image, recognizing the worldwide fascination about Obama’s election, First Amendment free-speech rights and easy access to videos and photos on the Web. “Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Obama’s calls for change and his Yes We Can campaign mantra are being evoked to sell assembly-required furniture in Ikea’s “Embrace Change” marketing campaign, bargain airfares during Southwest Airlines Inc.’s “Yes You Can” sale and “Yes Pecan” ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. shops.

The White House lawyers may have to make case-by-case determinations about the best ways to protect the presidential image without tempering enthusiasm or trampling on free-speech protections, said Jonathan Band, an intellectual property lawyer in Washington.

Still, regardless of whether the president’s lawyers lay down the law soon, Obama’s popularity will likely ebb and flow just like any other politician’s.

“Now’s the time to latch on to his coattails, because it isn’t going to last forever,” [a marketing expert] said [emph added].

Indeed, nearly every mall or market area in the DC area sports a kiosk selling Obama paraphernalia; the table in the above photo was snapped on a Connecticut Avenue sidewalk, across from the entrance to the National Zoo. A few blocks down the hill, another vendor was hawking T-shirts and memorabilia adjacent to the Beardsley Park Metro Station.

Obama Gear is Still a Hot Ticket in DC
Obama Gear is Still a Hot Ticket in DC

At some point Obama oversaturation may become counterproductive. Maybe even now. Peggy Noonan’s most recent column discussed the drawbacks of the iconic President’s ubiquitous presence:

In the time since his inauguration, Mr. Obama has been on every screen in the country, TV and computer, every day. He is never not on the screen. I know what his people are thinking: Put his image on the age. Imprint the era with his face. But it’s already reaching saturation point. When the office is omnipresent, it is demystified. Constant exposure deflates the presidency, subtly robbing it of power and making it more common.

Overexposure, coupled with setbacks to his ambitious legislative agenda, could rob the President of the gravitas he seeks to bring to the office as a post-partisan leader. The record on his first legislative hurdle, the  nearly trillion dollar stimulus package, has been a mixed bag. Sure, it passed Congress, but without a single Republican vote it is less the Lincoln model, and more in the mold of a Bush or a Clinton.

On the way home from our DC foray we spotted a MoveOn ad in one of the metro stations. While it lacked the campaign iconography, it nonetheless sported the President’s name, and was tagged.

Will Obama Iconography Be Tagged and Tired as Well?
Will Obama Iconography Be Tagged and Tired as Well?

The MoveOn ad sat between Tylenol cough syrup  and orange juice producer marketing posters, all defaced in a similar manner, probably by the same tagger, whose motive seemed more psychological than political. How long before the beloved Shepard Fairey posters suffer a similar fate, and become tagged, tired remnants far from the forefront of the national zeitgeist?.

And so I am reminded of the most iconic presence of my adolescence, the legendary rock band Kiss. As a first grader I can remember when my older cousins next door purchased the double album Kiss Alive at the record store; I remember Alive’s liner notes, a letter from each member of the band that matched their stage personas. Kiss’ music and iconography was everywhere during the latter half of the 1970s.

Kiss Alive, the Music and Iconography of My Adolescence

I scrawled the Kiss logo nearly every time I took a pen to paper, or drew the bat-winged face of Gene Simmons instead. When my parents bought me my own stereo (complete with an 8-track tape player!!) in 1978, I spent my allowance buying my own copies of Alive, Alive II, and Double Platinum in rapid succession. I also bought all four of the forgettable Single Albums, and taped the four-part poster to my wall as well.

Kiss was everywhere, which was great. Until it wasn’t.

At Some Point, Kiss Lost Control of Their Brand
At Some Point, Kiss Lost Control of Their Brand

Eventually, Kiss merchandising went haywire. There was Kiss makeup (I was Paul Stanley for Halloween in 1979) comic books, a Kiss totem pole, a horrible Kiss made-for-TV movie, and finally, to add insult to injury, Kiss dolls. The advent of the Kiss dolls, most fans will agree, was the point when most of us in the Kiss Army started to desert en masse and branch out into other music. Remember the Kiss dolls? If you don’t, here is one of the commercials:

After the Kiss dolls came out, I saved up my money and bought the latest Foreigner album, Head Games. The Kiss albums eventually ended up in my parent’s attic, right next to the file boxes of comic books and D & D paraphernalia.

So protect your brand Mr. President, and do your best to ensure that your iconography remains meaningful, to supporters and opponents alike. After all, you DO NOT want to end up as the political equivalent of Peter Criss.


9 thoughts on “Managing the Obama Brand

  1. No, not at all. It is about losing control of your brand, and letting its ubiquitousness/oversaturation dilute its meaning. It’s hard to maintain the mantra of Hope and Change when you are making zero headway on bipartisanship (despite your best efforts) and a gourmet ice cream is sporting your campaign iconography to sell its latest $7.00 a quart flavor. . .

  2. obama kiosk in the fayetteville mall as well this weekend.

    i would offer that obama should look to hizballah for how to manage and sustain a politically viable brandh. hasan nasrallah is a genius at this.

    however, the real question is this, explain your D and D paraphenalia…

  3. Barack Obama,
    Barack Obama,
    Barack Obama,
    isen’t he the best just best president we ever had!
    NOT!!! He has only been in office for a 12 days and looky at all the mess-ups he has! he was probably the worst president in the history of presidents!

    From the Acre: Thanks for reading, as always, MGM. But, uh, pretty harsh commentary directed towards a man who’s held the office for less than two weeks. And delivered in some sort of chant-like poetic structure that I confess I am unfamiliar with (I was a business major at a state school, after all) Off topic, too. The point of the post is that hypersaturation of President Obama’s iconography, coupled with early perceived failures of his ambitious legislative agenda, could diminish the President’s gravitas. The new President could end up fighting the same old ‘tired arguments’ (his words, not mine) of his two predecessors. President Obama’s image, his brand, if you will, is a benefit right now, but it could be diminished rapidly if he is not careful. Now if you will excuse me, it’s time for some Ben and Jerry’s Sarah Palin Alaskan Wild Blueberry Ice Cream here at the Acre, Cheers. Keep reading, too.

  4. Remember when Kiss added their own blood to the comic ink? I bet you couldn’t do that now.

    I don’t think white house counsel should waste a minute of taxpayer paid time preventing use of Obama’s image. Letting small business operators sell a public domain image on a tshirt is the most efficient economic stimulus the federal govt ever allowed.

  5. Bob,

    Yes, I remember the blood in the comics well, probably off limits today tho!

    I agree that it would be a waste of time/money to go after street vendors as well. But when major corporations like Ikea start marketing furniture lines using your campaign imagery and language, it might be worth drawing the line. . .

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