Naomi Klein: How Corporate Branding Took Over the White House
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The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine. "They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a product problem.
I used to think that, but I may have been wrong. When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered - Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.
So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding - it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desirée Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week, "has quarterbacked campaigns" for everyone from Cablevision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as "authentic"); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).
The first time I saw the "Yes We Can" video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers' top annual award - Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama's caché (Pepsi's "Choose Change" campaign, Ikea's "Embrace Change '09" and Southwest Airlines' offer of "Yes You Can" tickets).