Building the Obama Brand

Barack Obama’s message of change has resonated with a nonpartisan audience: advertising researchers.

Obama pollster and market researcher Joel Benenson, speaking at the Advertising Research Foundation’s (ARF’s) annual meeting this week, equated challenges during Obama’s early campaign to those encountered by advertising research professionals in other sectors.

“Imagine launching a new brand or product, going up against well-known category leader,” Benenson said. “You need to grow volume by 150 percent, and you have 12 months to do it. That’s where we were when Barack Obama announced he was running for the president of the United States.”

After all, how should someone account for the first viable African-American presidential candidate? Or the first First Lady running for president? “What benchmarks and norms should I apply to this situation? There are none,” Benenson said, bringing up an issue relevant to researchers working in both off- and online channels.

Since the advent of online advertising over a decade ago, researchers’ jobs have grown more difficult due to new media platforms.

“Now we’re faced with a complex digital ecosystem that encompasses online advertising, search, mobile, gaming, IPTV, video on demand, desktop applications, blogs, viral, and podcasting — all amplified by the rise of user-generated content and social media,” points out Avenue A/Razorfish in its “2008 Digital Outlook Report” (PDF download, registration required), released earlier this year.

With more media, there’s more to measure. When there’s more to measure, there’s more of a chance something won’t add up or will get overlooked.

Other forces are at work, too. “Clients are demanding results cheaper and faster. That pressure gets transferred to the research agencies,” observed Stan Sthanunathan, Coca-Cola’s VP of marketing strategy and insights, at the ARF event.

Most important, consumers are in charge. “We are in an era where marketers realize they can no longer take product-centric viewpoints,” said Joel Rubinson, the ARF’s new chief research officer. Advertising researchers, he said, must embrace innovation and develop a tolerance for risk — characteristics that have run counter to the conservative sector.

For their part, executives from audience measurement and market research firms such as Nielsen Media Research, comScore, TNS Global, WPP’s Kantar, and the GfK Group explained how they’re working to improve data quality and analysis so the firms can provide clients with better customer insights.

As the industry evolves, what’s an advertising researcher to do? Benenson offered these tips from his team’s playbook:

  • Dig below the numbers and examine data in new ways. For inspiration, Benenson requires his team to read two books: “Moneyball,” which looks at how the Oakland Athletics used statistical data to build a winning team, and “Freakonomics,” which takes an unconventional look at questions involving everyday life (e.g., what do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?)

  • Challenge assumptions and go beyond asking pat questions. For instance, people polled by Berenson’s team were asked how closely were they following the election and what they knew about the senator. The pollsters learned that among people in New Hampshire following the election, Obama had a 10-point lead. How was this information actionable? The campaign worked to get the word out about Obama’s life story because the more people knew about Obama, the more they were predisposed to vote for him.
  • Use different approaches to measure your message. Early on, the Obama campaign had used dial groups, one-on-one interviews, and online testing for television ads. “We determined what was working and what wasn’t working so well,” Berenson said. Ads were revised based on results, though he declined to disclose how.
  • Measure against your competitor. “You should never look at your research just from your point of view. You’re competing against a mindshare of people you never did before,” the pollster said.
  • Remember the landscape’s changed, too. More people, according to one published report, saw Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on YouTube than watched clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor.

“Advertisers, marketers really have to think differently about the competitive world they operate in and communicate. Too often marketers get absorbed in their story, their message. They don’t evaluate it in context to what their competitors are saying,” Berenson said in a follow-up interview with me.

Over the past few months, Obama’s campaign has afforded other examples of how to use digital media to get the message out and build loyalty — from mobile marketing to locally targeted online video ads.

One thing’s for sure: advertising researchers aren’t alone if their research goes awry.

Berenson’s team, for example, had predicted Obama would win New Hampshire.

Another pollster, John Zogby, predicted Obama would win the California Democratic primary on Feb. 5, with 49 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 36 percent.

Au contraire, Clinton won California.

“We f*cked up,” said Zogby, who chalks up the miscalculation to underestimating Hispanic turnout, among other factors.

However, he said his firm correctly predicted Clinton would win New Hampshire when other pollsters did not.

“This year, we were out skeet shooting, but the skeets are shooting back,” Zogby said.

Not only are reputations on the line, so are jobs. “George Will said, ‘The future arrives unannounced.’ It’s the researcher’s job to make sure the future doesn’t arrive unannounced,” said the ARF’s Rubinson.

Want more campaign information? Check out our ClickZ News Campaign ’08 section for the latest news and analysis.

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