The Importance of Being Authentic (or internet strategy lessons from the Obama campaign)

Deconstructing the remarkable ascendancy of Barack Obama, from political unknown to presumptive Democratic nominee for President, lessons emerge for political war rooms and corporate boardrooms alike. As much as the Clinton campaign’s foibles have provided a cautionary tale for political operatives, the Obama campaign’s successes have presented a compelling case study for business students and leaders.

Obama’s ability to inspire and command unswerving loyalty, not just amongst his inner circle of advisers and nearly 1,000 employees, but amongst the coveted millennials across college campuses, has intrigued marketeers as much as it has preoccupied journalists.

Obama built a groundswell of support amongst his most effusive of fans, the millennials, by tapping into a core brand attribute – authenticity. Obama wears his authenticity on his sleeve, it transcends his oratory and prose, and it defines him to a new generation of voters. No other brand attribute resonates more with the millennials, who, much to the chagrin of advertisers and marketeers, have a discerning eye when it comes to spotting a fake.

It is common knowledge that the Obama team expertly crafted and meticulously executed a masterful online campaign to introduce their candidate, mobilise support, and raise more funds via online donations than was perceived possible (although less surprising when you consider that 24-year old Chris Hughes, a co-founder at Facebook is championing Obama’s social networking strategy). It is not a stretch to compare Obama’s online operations to other celebrated internet success stories where new entrants have captured our imagination by displacing complacent incumbents. By successfully extending the Obama brand online, primarily through an elaborate online social network at, and through countless other means (a decent Facebook profile, Twitter feeds, widgets, You Tube posts, etc), Obama become one of his own people, or to put it another way, stayed ‘authentic’.

Businesses should be forewarned if they think the Obama campaign offers a checklist of online initiatives that will earn them street cred with Gen Y. Were that the case, surely Hillary Clinton could’ve stolen some of Obama’s online momentum. A cursory look at both candidates Facebook profiles is insightful in highlighting the importance of authenticity to building a brand online. Where Obama’s profile is at least somewhat realistic, Hillary’s is amusingly out of character with the medium.

Admittedly, the importance of social networks to businesses and the context for their participation is still being determined. But other examples abound of how the Obama campaign has innovated online in smaller yet effective ways, again providing lessons for large corporations.

For all the immediacy of the internet, when it comes to managing a company’s public image, most online experiences are disappointingly static. Browse through the public relations or investor relations sections of most corporate websites, and besides archives of annual reports and press releases, there isn’t much to engage site visitors. Worse, when many of these corporations are engaged in crisis management of some magnitude, their websites are embarrassingly opaque.

Contrast that with the Obama campaign’s launch last week, of their pre-emptive crisis management website, “Fight the Smears”. Acknowledging that in a world where 24 hour cable news channels feed off sound bites circulating online, they co-opted supporters, detractors and the media in their efforts to combat rumours directly online. The Obama camp invites anyone to forward a rumour they have come across online, and track official responses from the candidate. It has been widely reported that the urgency for this initiative came directly from Obama. By staying true to his instincts (as he did when he made a daring speech on race relations), he defied the conventional wisdom on responding to rumours. Both instances are evidence of Obama’s ‘authenticity’.

Election campaigns are in a constant state of crisis, and it is to be expected that extreme situations will necessitate fresh, innovative, and occasionally lateral thinking. The Obama campaign has broken new ground online, and done so in a very public arena, making  the current U.S. election historical and inspiring on so many levels.  Rarely have corporations had a front row view of what works and what fails online, without taking on too much risk themselves. Perhaps beyond the mundane world of politics, there is also reason to be hopeful for change.


1 Response to “The Importance of Being Authentic (or internet strategy lessons from the Obama campaign)”

  1. 1 Crowdfunding Trackback on March 3, 2009 at 4:44 pm

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