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Brand Obama: A Hit Abroad, But What About Loyalty?

A vendor carries the iconic blue and red Obama posters to a town hall-style meeting the now president held in 2008.
Jae C. Hong
A vendor carries the iconic blue and red Obama posters to a town hall-style meeting the now president held in 2008.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, efforts to brand Barack Obama were ubiquitous. T-shirts, music videos and posters declared "HOPE" in big blue letters. The opposition tried to brand him, too — as a mysterious untested outsider and, although provably false, as a Kenyan citizen and a Muslim.

Since the Obama family moved into the White House, the Obama brand-management project has become more complicated.

'A Person, Not A Product'

White House officials have mixed feelings about describing the president of the United States in terms usually applied to shampoo or chain restaurants.

Political adviser David Axelrod has privately described his job to reporters as managing the Obama brand. Yet Axelrod once chided another top White House staffer for openly discussing the Obama brand. According to The New York Times, he told former social secretary Desiree Rogers, "The president is a person, not a product."

Harvard business professor John Quelch understands this ambivalence. "You certainly don't want to market the president as if he or she were a box of breakfast cereal," says Quelch. "However, the principles are relevant in both spheres."

Quelch recently wrote an academic paper, "Can Brand Obama Rescue Brand America?" He argues that the Obama brand matters, whether the White House openly acknowledges it or not.

For example, President George W. Bush tried and failed to persuade dozens of countries to accept Guantanamo detainees. But in the past year, many governments across Europe and the Middle East changed their position and agreed to take prisoners. The American request did not change, but receptivity did.

One senior official, who has worked on closing Guantanamo in both administrations and refused to be quoted by name, believes this is unquestionably the effect of the Obama brand and the boost it has given America's brand internationally.

"The general international view seems to be that it's OK to admire America again," says Simon Anholt, who consults with governments on their national identities.

Anholt conducts an annual survey of national identities. In his most recent one, taken after the 2008 election, the United States had risen from seventh place to first. Anholt argues that standing brings tangible financial and diplomatic consequences.

"If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there," he says.

The White House has worked hard to leverage Obama's life story into a strong national brand for America. In his first year in office, Obama visited 21 countries, more than any first-year American president before him.

In Egypt last year, he addressed the Muslim world.

"I'm a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," he told an audience at Cairo University. "As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the Azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk."

The Brand Does Not Equal Approval

But selling a brand and building longtime brand loyalty are different things. A presidency is built on thousands of specific decisions, every one of which can alienate people who believed in the Obama brand.

Environmentalists were disappointed in the president's decision to allow offshore drilling. Peace activists decried his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

In Yemen, Khaled al-Anisi recently told NPR he lost hope when the president decided not to release any more Yemenis from Guantanamo prison.

If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there.

"Obama give the people hope, and they live one year with this hope," said Anisi, who directs the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a legal organization that is pressing for the Yemeni detainees' release. "Now the people start to think this is not Bush problem or Bush administration mistake. It is the mistake for all American people, Democrats or Republicans. All of them are the enemy."

The artist Shepard Fairey helped establish the Obama brand, designing the iconic red and blue poster of Barack Obama gazing into the distance with the word "HOPE."

"The brand is promised utopia almost," says Fairey.

He views a brand as a simplistic invitation to learn more about a complicated person or a product. Whether people like what they learn is a different question.

"When you look at all the different warring ideologies and complexities of different people's needs and agendas," says Fairey, "it is impossible to please everyone in the way that "Have a Coke and a Smile," or any other great slogan, can."

And Quelch of Harvard says that even if everyone identifies Barack Obama with "hope," "change" and "Yes We Can," "the approval rating and the strength of the brand may not be quite the same thing."

"When we're talking about brand, we're talking about what does the brand stand for," Quelch says. "And when we're talking about approval, we're talking about whether or not I approve of what the brand stands for."

If people believe that Obama equals change, that is good branding. If they hate the change that the health care overhaul represents, good branding could equal bad approval ratings.

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