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7 Marketing Lessons Businesses Can Learn From Obama

Bruce Newman

The Obama victories in 2008 and 2012 represent a case study of the use of marketing machinery in a marketplace where an organization is effectively a start-up; in crisis-mode from the start; under constant attack from the competition; under pressure to stay focused on results.  

Sound familiar?  It should. In business and politics, the challenge is extreme – you either win the vote or the sale, or you lose!  

So what are the business lessons that can be learned from Obama’s successful campaigns?  

Lesson #1: Respond to Customer Needs and Wants

In business, companies need to meet the needs and wants of consumers. The same principle is true in politics.  However, as the cost to run promotional campaigns continues to stay high, especially for start-up companies, it can help them to avoid waste and target messages to only those customers who represent the best outcomes. 

The Obama campaigns witnessed more and more people moving their media viewing from television to online videos, and micro-targeting was a key tool in reaching these audiences more effectively. Companies need to measure of exactly who their customers are and why they choose to do business with them, giving them a base for future offerings.

Lesson #2: Use Technology Strategically

In the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign, the candidates spent approximately $160 million online, eight times more than in 2008. This represents a significant shift towards online technology to target individuals with very specific messages geared to their preferences and likes and dislikes. 

Businesses can collate information, to respond to customer needs and wants and target messages by either e-mail, direct mail, or through social media, depending on which outlet best fitted the purpose of the message.

Lesson #3: Integrate Research Methods

In a report by McKinsey Consulting on the importance of the integration of analytics into the daily operations of an organization concluded it is critical that the “right data” are used, and that the data should match the information technology infrastructure within the organization. Businesses also need to create simple, easy-to-understand tools for employees on the front lines. One way this could be seen in the Obama campaign was in the use of focus groups, as well as polling, and then integrating the results from each to target voters.

Businesses also need to create simple, easy-to-understand tools for employees on the front lines. One way this could be seen in the Obama campaign was in the use of focus groups, as well as polling, and then integrating the results from each to target voters.

Lesson #4: Develop a Unique Brand Identity

All corporations understand the need to develop a unique identity, but may not know how to present all of their products and services as a single, unified brand. The Obama team was a marketing organization that created a consistent story that was connected with a compelling marketing message that each different audience they targeted could find relevant. 

Sound bites based on a narrative that be used over and over in slightly different ways, all of which were connected through a single, unique brand identity. Businesses can better present a single, unified brand by determining the single core value that their customers identify with and communicating it with a simple, easy to understand theme as Obama did in 2008 with “Change we can believe in” and in 2012 with  “Forward.”

Lesson #5: Create a Winning Advertising Strategy

Ultimately, advertising is nothing more than a tool to do three things:  build awareness, position a product, and establish a brand’s identity. In political races, as with the marketing of products and services, campaigns must understand whether or not the message has been received as intended. If they have been successful in the first three areas, then maintaining awareness will keep the strategy going strong. The Obama team used different media outlets to reinforce their brand to different audiences in very creative ways, such as their reliance on bloggers to carry their message to young audiences, and through the use of real-time data happening in one market at a time to make all advertising decisions. To be successful, business needs to be equally creative and flexible.

Lesson #6: Build a Relationship with your Customers

Through the proliferation of mobile devices and their ability to access social media, more consumers have become more “vocal” and now willingly offer critiques and commentary regarding almost any interaction they have with a business. By relying on databases that made it possible for them to test, shoot and send political commercials overnight, the Obama campaign was able to respond to their voter base and react immediately to events as they unfolded. Companies must maintain their relationship with consumers through every interaction they have with a firm, and take full advantage of the digital world that we live in.

Lesson #7: Be Prepared to Engage in Crisis Management

The evolution of marketing in politics has reached a critical stage where politicians can no longer be assured of a loyal party following, in much the same way that business must be prepared to use any tool necessary to respond to unexpected events. Whether it be poorly chosen words, a product-safety concern, or even a natural disaster, these crises cannot be ignored and must be handled carefully. Clint Eastwood addressed an empty seat that was meant to represent the President at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  Within minutes, “Invisible Obama” was a Twitter account with 6,000 followers and the hash-tag #Eastwooding flooded the Twitter feed.  That night, Obama himself had tweeted a response – a photo of him in a White House chair captioned, “This seat’s taken.” There is much to be learned from the way in which candidates change on a dime to respond to a crisis.


Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, said Obama’s 2012 victory was a mix of grassroots door-to-door efforts as well as technology. People believed in the message and the vision, and ultimately they bought the brand because they believed in Barack Obama. So too, businesses must apply technology effectively, and ensure they are targeting their customers in the best way possible.

Image Credit: scyther5 / Getty Images
Bruce Newman Member
Bruce Newman, author of "The Marketing Revolution in Politics: What Recent U.S. Presidential Campaigns Can Teach Us About Effective Marketing" is a professor of marketing and a Wicklander Fellow in Business Ethics in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University and founding editor of the Journal of Political Marketing.