The Obama Brand: Lessons for the Nonprofit Sector

January 26, 2009

A Respected Brand Can Get You Through Tough Times

When friends, coworkers and even family members find out that I went to Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration of President Barack H. Obama, they ask, What was it like? In their usually hushed voices, you hear one part awe, one part envy and two parts reverence. Even one of my husband’s friends, who mostly just nods when he sees me, asked to speak with me –  during their sacred weekly call about football – when he heard that I was on the National Mall for the swearing in.

Certainly, everyone from my mom to Rupert Murdoch and from the Guardian to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News (and how often do they all agree?) have called Barack Obama a rock star. Even rival John McCain pejoratively referred to then-Senator Obama during the presidential campaign as a celebrity.

So of course, everyone assumes that my experience witnessing the inauguration in person must have been amazing. And it was.

But it was also cold and windy and amazingly frustrating. I walked for nearly two hours from one check point to another between nine city blocks, and then was subjected to a body search in the frigid weather, before I finally got onto the mall to witness the event. And I, a member of the ticket-less lumpen proletariat, did better than hundreds of ticket holders who never made it in at all due to some kind of security breach.

But in the midst of all of the confusion, all of the waiting, and all of the pushing and shoving in and out of the Metro station and on the streets, two million people kept smiling – broadly – and greeting each other with such a positive spirit. And that is a testament to President Obama and all that he stands for.

And it is also a result, for those of us who try to practice such things, of successful branding and effective social marketing.

Social Marketing and Building a Respected Brand

Now before you suggest that I’m reducing President Obama’s accomplishments to a good brand, hear me out. The Obama campaign can teach nonprofits a lot about branding, messaging and social marketing.

Few people believed just a year ago at the beginning of 2008, that then-Senator Obama had a chance at the U.S. presidency. Even his wife has admitted to questioning his belief that he could be U.S. Commander-in-Chief. In addition to being a black man, our current president was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and has a name that is anything but U.S.-traditional. His parents were not married when he was born, and his father was not American.

So how did he make it, and how can nonprofit organizations use some of the lessons from his campaign?

Six Steps to Borrow from Candidate Obama’s Brand Playbook

1) Be clear about purpose: First and foremost, candidate Obama was clear about what he wanted to achieve. Not only did he want to be the president for change, but he was clear about what that change would mean: transparent government, inclusive decision-making based on solid facts, citizen empowerment, progressive national and international policies, stewardship of our economy and ecology, and using technology to improve lives and strengthen communication.

He shared these messages using various media. These themes laced his speeches, website text, advertisements, videos, brochures and more. And he made sure that those representing him reinforced those themes.

As nonprofits, we want to be clear about our purpose. What are we trying to achieve in the communities we serve? We need to be as specific as possible. To use resources wisely, we can’t afford to be all things to all people. We must define our niche based on community needs and the expertise we bring to the table to address those needs.

2) Know your core audience: Candidate Obama wanted to be the choice of all Americans, but he was smart enough to know that he would appeal to some audiences more than others. He appealed to youth and reached them through new technologies. He visited communities of color and spoke at fundraisers for moneyed, highly-educated progressives. He certainly reached beyond his core, but he never lost track of these core groups. His opponent lost some of his base, as he tried to broaden his appeal, contributing to his defeat.

Nonprofit organizations need to keep focused on our key constituents, not allowing the “chase for the money” or our desire to avoid narrowing our scope to get us off-track. Yes, you need funding to support your constituents, but don’t go after funding that takes you far from your mission. And be inclusive, but remember that true inclusiveness means that you provide the best possible focused programs and services for a diverse audience.

3) Use a clear, simple, consistent and positive message: Candidate Obama has a complex vision for the world, but he shared that vision in simple, clear, easy to understand language. He also talked about difficult issues and subjects in a hopeful, positive way.

The language was easy for his campaign workers to share. And the millions of Americans that “got on board the Obama express” were able to understand and then share that message with their family, coworkers and friends.

Realize that as much as you would like to control the messages about your nonprofit, you can’t. So make sure the message is simple, unambiguous, clear and devoid of “program-speak.” That way, when the themes you try to share about your organization move out into the world, as you hope they will, they will represent you well.

Also, no matter how difficult the issues are that your nonprofit deals with, craft your message in a way that gives people hope.

4) Make it personal: Candidate Obama told his story in a very personal way. It made someone who could have easily been dismissed as “other” more like the guy next door or the guy I work with or the guy in my bowling league, or … Well, you get it.

Tell your nonprofit’s story through stats and results, but also through personal stories of those whose lives you’ve touched, including the satisfaction this work brings your staff and volunteers. You don’t support esoteric ideas with your time and dollars, so why should your potential supporters?

5) Build a strong visual brand: While the special seal developed during the campaign caused a great hue and cry, Obama’s visuals were stunning and set a new standard for campaign materials. No other candidate in recent memory (maybe ever) was so identifiable by their campaign materials.

Obama’s materials were new, different, and attractive for his core audiences (the sun visual was so hopeful), but they said “America” at the same time for more traditional voters with the red, white and blue.

Often nonprofits feel that money spent on creating a visual presence could be better spent on program work. In tough economic times like these, the design budget can be the first thing to get cut.

I agree that you should be conservative with design dollars. But if you spend them wisely, your organization will be immediately recognizable to constituents by color and visuals. This will save a lot of money in the long run – while providing a polished look to funders.

6) Stay in touch and make it easy for supporters to share your message: A colleague sent $50 to candidate Obama’s campaign. She heard from the campaign regularly after that – not just appeals for money but information about the candidate, the campaign and key issues. She was hooked, and then she started to send her own messages.

As nonprofits, we want to stay in touch with constituents and not just during direct mail drives. We want to help our constituents share our simple message and grow the number of supporters for us. Don’t be afraid to let go of the message. If you’ve made it clear and compelling, it will survive on its own.

A Trip and Lesson to Remember

So despite being cold and wet and frustrated, the trip to the Inauguration was one of the best experiences of my life. President Obama, as candidate Obama, built a respected brand that easily withstood the craziness of January 20, 2009.

And I suspect that the brand he built will get us all through the tough months ahead with the same spirit of brother and sisterhood – and hope for the future – that I experienced on the National Mall last week.

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2 Responses to “The Obama Brand: Lessons for the Nonprofit Sector”

  1. Deb Halliday Says:

    Thanks for a beautifully written and keenly observed article! It’s definitely inspiring to try to incorporate key lessons from this remarkable election season into our daily work.


  2. […] Certainly, everyone from my mom to Rupert Murdoch and from the Guardian to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News (and how often do they all agree?) have called Barack Obama a rock star. Even rival John McCain pejoratively referred to then-Senator Obama during the presidential campaign as a celebrity. …more at The Obama Brand: Lessons for the Nonprofit Sector « TSNE – Strategic Communications Blog. […]


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