Obama – SuperPAC Man
Balancing your brand values with practical concerns and issues
During the 2008 election and his subsequent first term in office President Barack Obama defined a clear purpose and brand positioning for himself. He created a persona that was young and charismatic but which, at the same time, stood for traditional democratic values. However like many brands the incumbent President now faces a tough balancing act between the values that define his brand and the practical nature of the world around him.
The Democratic party have traditionally been wary, and often opposed, to the loosening of campaign contribution legislation and their Commander-in-chief has been no exception. Obama rallied against the SupremeCourt ruling to allow special interest groups to establish campaign funds which, although unassociated directly with the campaign, could help it significantly, especially given the fact that they are uncapped. Now, however, Obama has performed a u-turn and is now encouraging wealthy Democrats to donate to these funds and help his election campaign for 2012. The President claims to still wish for the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling but in the face of phenomenal Republican investment in these schemes he could no longer sit on the bench. As his Chief of Staff and Campaign Manager Jim Massina states they had to “face the reality of the law”. The real question now is how will Obama wrestle with accepting campaign finance in a way that is completely against his brand.
Obama is not the first brand to challenge his values with pragmatic acceptances and nor will he be the last. In 2001 British Petroleum famously rebranded themselves as bp, in an effort to move ‘beyond petroleum’. Behind the tagline were 4 brand values; Performance, Innovative, Green and Progressive. Their new sunflower logo was dubbed “Helios” after the Greek god of the Sun to embody their new progressive environmentally friendly outlook. Given the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the time taken to stop it, these may seem laughable now but the issues started long before.
Sir John Browne, chairman of BP, said in 2001 “we are not an oil company” which was embodied by their new brand. They highlighted an investment of $45m in 2000 to buy Solarex, a solar power company as commitment to this. In this same year they also spent $26.5bn to buy Arco, an oil company.
The real extent of their change was revealed by Sir John Browne “40% of our hydrocarbon production comes from natural gas. We are aware the world wants less carbon-intensive fuels. What we want to do is create options”. So through this linguistic slight of hand, he showed their investment in solar and wind farms was nothing more than a smokescreen to hide the fact they were moving “beyond petroleum” and into gas! John Kenney, the Creative Director who was responsible for the new brand even said “I guess, looking at it now, ‘beyond petroleum’ is just advertising. It’s become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm”.
So this is a warning that developing a brand must be more than just a painting a nice logo onto a set of ethical values. It needs to embody a real change in the organisation or there will be a backlash against the broken promises. Here’s hoping that Obama manages to win, or the ghosts of SuperPAC may come back to haunt him.