The Obamas and the presidential brand promise

Only in America: the United States struggles through a withering recession, and yet the personal attire of Barack and Michelle Obama creates a national controversy.  Barack Obama is accused of turning the Oval office into a locker room for discarding his suit jacket.  Michelle Obama raises eyebrows for baring her tone arms.  Why all the fuss?  I’ll tell you why: they’re breaking a silly but very potent code of presidential conduct.  Call it the presidential brand promise.  Here it is in a nutshell:

1. (For presidents): I will look better than you. It’s OK for local politicians to look rumpled.  But different rules apply in the Oval office  We want our presidents to look better than we do — buttoned up, not a hair out of place.  We expect presidents to be the fine china in our homes.   In the 1970s, two presidents broke the rule of looking presidential and were promptly ushered out of office after serving one term.  Poor Jerry Ford had the misfortune of doing something we all do: stumbling and tripping in public, as Chevy Chase famously noticed.  Sorry Jerry, we can slip on the ice and fall on our butts in public, but you can’t even stub a toe.  Then came Jimmy Carter,  bless his peanut farming soul.  He also broke the presidential brand promise in a major way when walked in the inauguration parade and then later addressed the nation wearing a cardigan sweater.  Bad moves.  Apparently he failed to understand that although it was OK for him to act like a humble farmer from Georgia while running for office, he couldn’t look like a man of the people while in office.  Even worse, he started doing goofy things — unpresidential things — like fighting killer rabbits.  By contrast, Bill Clinton, another good old boy from the South, never failed to look presidential, even in the face of public scandal for his personal excesses.  Bill Clinton was true to the presidential brand promise.  He might have turned the Oval office into a cheap motel room, but he kept it behind closed doors.  The lesson: presidents will be tolerated for many personal transgressions so long as they keep them behind closed doors.  But we just don’t want someone who looks like an eccentric uncle negotiating nuclear arms treaties.

2 (For First Ladies): I will make no waves.  We want our First Ladies to be as harmless as do-thing vice presidents.  It’s acceptable, even desirable, for First Ladies to champion feel-good causes like education and clean living (“Just say no” to drugs, right Nancy?)  But First Ladies cannot draw undue attention to themselves by acting out or speaking out.  Mary Todd Lincoln broke the presidential brand promise repeatedly, most notably for publicly defending the president and taking strong stances about issues like slavery.  History has branded her a lunatic for her troubles.  Jackie Kennedy might have been a fashion trend setter, but she didn’t threaten anyone, nor did Pat Nixon.  Poor Rosalynn Carter tried to make no waves, but then Jimmy made the mistake of pointing out that he listened to her counsel and invited her to attend cabinet meetings, prompting plenty of hand wringing over her — gasp — influence over the president.  (Using contemporary marketing vernacular, today we would say Jimmy was a social influencer of Rosalynn’s personal brand, for the worse.)  Now, there’s something about Michelle’s bare arms that scares her detractors.  You know what they’re thinking: do her bare arms hint at a certain recklessness and boldness in the political and social realm?  Even worse, will she insist her husband start wearing jogging suits when going toe to toe someday with Putin?

I hope Mr. and Mrs. Obama get even more bold and reckless.  All brands need to be refreshed now and then.  And the presidential brand is long overdue.

Don’t sound like your parents

Someday I’ll need to talk to my daughter about drugs.  I sure hope I don’t screw it up.  To help people like me, my employer Razorfish and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) have launched a site, Don’t Sound Like Your Parents.  The site uses video reels to depict the many ways that Baby Boomer parents have failed to talk to their kids about drugs, using somewhat jaded and wry narratives.  Moreover, viewers can post their own stories about how they learned about drugs from their parents.  Replies are posted as facsimile paper notes across the screen.

Some of the replies are quite interesting, ranging from parents who did drugs and discussed their experiences frankly with their children to parents who just avoided the topic.  The site also contains links to information like “A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain.”

Razorfish also is conducting digital advertising to raise awareness for “Don’t Sound Like Your Parents,” including interactive ads appearing on properties like and, which are PDFA partner sites.

Talking to kids about drugs: not the easiest thing to do or “promote.”  Lots of risk for trying to be hip but sounding uncool.  How did we do?

Here is a critique of the site from Adrants, by the way.

Think Social Influence Marketing and innovation during the recession

According to a new survey by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), 77 percent of marketers will reduce their advertising campaign media budgets.

The ANA isn’t the only organization forecasting bad news for the marketing industry.  Forrester Research recently predicted that marketing budgets will see typical decreases of 15-to-25 percent as enterprises decrease their spend on information technology goods and services.  Basically the message to marketers and their agency partners (like my employer Razorfish) is this: we’re in a recession — deal with it.  In this blog post, I’m going to answer three crucial questions on the minds of marketers and agencies as we deal with the recession.

1. Are we witnessing an industry implosion a la 2001-02?

Times are tough, to be sure.  But we’re not experiencing the digital marketing sector meltdown of 2001-02. Back then, the industry was bloated with digital services firms, and, what’s more, they concentrated too much client work on risky dot-coms.  When the dot-coms imploded, we saw a natural winnowing out.  Today, the players are more stable, and so are their clients.  I don’t think we’re going to see a wave of business collapses as we did during the dot-com implosion.  Rather, as Razorfish Chief Strategy Officer Jeff Lanctot recently stated, we can expect big players like Razorfish to continue to grow via targeted, smallish acquisitions around the world.

2. What happens to social media during a recession?

Social media used to be perceived as the marketer’s nemesis.  Now suddenly social media is the marketer’s best friend.  Why?  Because marketers realize that amid an economic downturn, it’s a lot more cost-effective to use social media channels like Twitter to build awareness among influencers.

But that doesn’t mean marketers will take a smart approach to social media.  In fact, I believe that social media will separate the savvy marketers from the followers during the recession.  The followers will settle for remedial, poorly formulated applications of social media in the name of saving money (“Let’s just post a video of our new product on YouTube, link our company announcement on Twitter, and call it a day”). But savvy marketers will take a more systematic approach to employing social influencers and media to achieve their marketing and business objectives — a strategy that my colleague Shiv Singh identified as Social Influence Marketing in 2007.

Savvy marketers will emerge from the recession more effective for having embraced Social Influence Marketing.  They will move beyond the role of strategic counselor to the enterprise (although that role is important) and become active participants in Social Influence Marketing (e.g., by blogging and joining communities that matter to their clients).  Savvy marketers will figure out how to make their company brands more authentic and true to their cultural values by listening to their own employees’ blogs and Twitter posts.  They will stop worrying about employees “subverting their brand” through the proliferation of blogs and instead learn from their own brand ambassadors.

This journey is starting now as the recession forces marketers to take a closer look at deploying social media as a cost-effective way to build their brands.

3. What’s the best way to market ourselves in a recession?

Conventional wisdom says that during down times, you place more focus on ways you can help marketers achieve efficencies and measure ROI — like the Razorfish RIAx offering, which tracks the performance of rich media.  But a recession is also a time to innovate (especially if your competitors are not) so that you’re ready to flourish when a turnaround arrives.  In the December 2008 Wired, Daniel Roth asserts, “When the economy is in turmoil, the time is ripe for ambitious innovation.”  He cites numerous examples of companies like Siebel that took advantage of slack times to generate new ideas that helped them leapfrog competitors who were wallowing in cost cutting.

Moreover, when Intel announced its new Core i7 chip as the recession became more evident last year, Don Clark of The Wall Street Journal noted that the new product roll-out was “the latest sign that development cycles run counter to business cycles at high-tech companies.”  (Razorfish helped Intel with the effort through our involvement in the Intel Digital Drag Race, which generated buzz for the Core i7 among creative designers and games.)

So why innovate during slack times?  As Sean Maloney of Intel said in The Wall Street Journal, “You recover from a recession with tomorrow’s products, not today’s.”  And according to Daniel Roth during lean times, materials and labor required to experiment can be found for less money than during boom times.

At Razorfish, we’re using the down time to experiment with new ideas, too, like the Generational Tags we developed to measure consumer behavior on social media sites.  At our 9th Annual Client Summit April 21-23 in Las Vegas, “Art of the Idea,” we’ll examine the relationship between innovation and ROI.

How are you dealing with the recession?

Michael Phelps: one toke over the line

“So I went up to the room and the first thing I saw was this big bong pipe.  You know, on this team, you could walk into their meal and get high just breathing.” — Steve Sabol of NFL Films describing the locker room of the San Diego Chargers football team in the early 1970s. Source: Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas.

Poor Michael Phelps.  At age 23, he scrambles to issue a public apology and most certainly has lost endorsement income over indulging in a personal indiscrection that Willie Nelson, well into his 70s, freely celebrates and embraces all the time.

So what’s the difference between the Olympic champion and the country singer?  It all comes down to their personal brands.

For decades, Willie Nelson has carefully cultivated the outlaw image.  He’s the red-headed stranger who has laughed at the music establishment and glorified hell raising and womanizing in his music and persona.  He’s openly lived a nomadic life of debauchery that would make Keith Richards proud.

On a live VH1 Storytellers album Nelson recorded with Johnny Cash in 2002, you can hear him softly chuckling when he and Cash discuss their choice of coffee and water to drink during song breaks.

“What’s going to happen to our image?” Nelson asks Cash in mock horror at the prospect of drinking water over booze or perhaps something even stronger.

But Michael Phelps is not Willie Nelson.  He’s one of the all-time great Olympic champions who stands for grace, power, and performance.  His success has come not through steroids or reckless living but through honest, hard work.  That’s certainly what his agent Peter Carlisle wants you to believe.

Phelps’s sin wasn’t smoking from a marijuana bong pipe.  His public apology is really for violating the promise of his personal brand — a brand that encapsulates the purity of form.  (By contrast, if he were “Wild Man” John Matuszak, we’d expect him to drink bong water for breakfast.)

Tom Peters once wrote, “Big companies understand the importance of brands.  Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand.” And to that I would add: you are your own brand whether you realize it or not.

Wonder if Michael Phelps is starting to figure it out now?

Razorfish, CafeMom study digital moms

If marketers want to understand today’s mom, we had better get in touch with her digital side.  CafeMom and my employer Razorfish have published a report, Digital Mom, to help.  Digital Mom analyzes the purchasing behavior and media consumption habits of the increasingly digital savvy and powerful mom consumer.  As indicated in a February 2 press release, Razorfish and CafeMom have narrowed the focus of our research on moms who are active users of digital and who regularly research and purchase goods online.  Key findings:

  • The gap is closing between TV and digital channels in terms of creating awareness and affecting purchase decisions, and social influence channels are increasingly important.  TV still has the most impact on creating initial awareness for a product.  But social influence channels such as online consumer reviews and blogs are highly influential in the consideration stage.  These findings indicate how important it is for marketers to pinpoint the right channel (especially social) to influence moms through the purchase decision-making process.
  • Moms with children 12 and older are motivated to adopt new technologies to stay in tune with their children.  Of those who use social networks and blogs, almost half monitor their children.  Likewise, digital moms of children 12 and older, versus moms with children under 12, are more likely to watch online video, game, read online consumer reviews, and watch or listen to podcasts.  The findings suggest that marketers need to become more sophisticated in reaching out to moms at different stages of their parenting.
  • A mom’s media consumption habits reflect the many roles she plays: mom, wife, daughter, friend, powerful consumer, and adviser.  More moms show interest in clothing/fashion and food than in parenting information, with the exception of moms with children under 6 years of age.  Marketers need to respect the rich and diverse nature of her interest.

A Flash and PDF version of Digital Mom are available here.  Charts and graphs are available here.  In coming months, look for more significant Razorfish thought leadership, including our annual Digital Outlook Report and research into Social Influence Marketing.