The Marketing of a President

Last Updated Nov 7, 2008 10:14 AM EST

If you look at the just completed presidential race in terms of successful or failed marketing campaigns, there is a lot to learn about what sells in modern America.

Harvard Business School professor John Quelch marvels at the marketing acumen displayed by Barack Obama's campaign.

"For an inexperienced single term African-American senator tagged with the most liberal voting record to defeat the heir apparent in his own party and then go on to hold off the much-vaunted Republican machine is a truly remarkable achievement. Much of it has to do with Obama's instinct for marketing."
Writing on Harvard Business Publishing, Quelch points to several accomplishments by the campaign that would make any marketer proud.
  • Empathy: Through compelling speeches, debate performances, and autobiographies, the president-elect created considerable empathy among voters. More importantly, he convinced voters to act on that empathy.
  • Empowerment: He appealed to all segments of the electorate -- including what HBS professor Clay Christensen might term the under served market of young voters and non-voters. Many were were inspired to show up at the polls for the first time.
  • Media: The campaign understood how media works, and turned the Internet into a powerful weapon to create support and raise funds. "From the imaginative campaign logo to the thirty minute infomercial, Obama's communications were professional without being slick, attention-getting without being in-your-face," according to Quelch.
  • Tone: The Obama messaging was upbeat, but buttressed by concrete policy initiatives. Negative advertising was left largely to opponents.
  • Strategy: Like master chess players, Obama strategists seemed to outmaneuver opponents at every turn, even the battle hardened Clinton campaign.
(Earlier this year Quelch and co-author Katherine E. Jocz published a thought-provoking book called Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy. Read an interview with the authors.)

Marketing McCain
What are the marketing lessons we can take away from John McCain's run?

How did the McCain camp do in selling its candidate to the electorate? What could they have done better? Was McCain an effective "front man" for his own candidacy? Was there brand conflict between McCain and Sarah Palin?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.