Friday, October 9, 2009

Barack Obama and the Nobel Prize: Leadership as a Brand

"Obama was selected not for substantive accomplishments, but for his 'vision' and inspiring 'hope' at the beginning of his presidency."

Well, I awoke to a twitterverse of controversy: Barack Obama has won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Some people were ecstatic, some were skeptical, some smelled the stench of political maneuvering.

I was curious.

How could a first-term president with very few wins or successes under his belt receive such a special award?

Two years ago, Lenore Skenazy, a writer for the NY Sun, wrote a piece on branding of candidates. At that time the arguments were about Barack being "black enough" or Hillary being "feminine enough" and now some are asking if President Obama has accomplished enough.

I decided to look at this "win" from the perspective of branding, specifically personal or leadership branding. Since peace is somewhat tangible, (we know when we have peace or there are signs that a situation is peaceful) I was mostly intrigued by the reasons President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize (see opening quote). My conclusion...Barack Obama is one hell of a BRAND.

Barack's Leadership Brand can be understood by looking at five specific areas: Type of Brand, Social Benefit of Brand, Affective Connection to Brand, Behavioral Manifestation, and Brand Value.

Type of Brand
This can be considered his leadership style. Barack has proven to be a transformational leader by virtue of is ability to cast (and subsequently sell) a compelling vision. The leadership style creates differentiation. In the way a Kia is different from a Honda and a Honda different from a Lexus, leadership style contains factors that outline standards, behaviors and expectations. You expect the three car brands to be different as a result of their messaging, looks, focus, and promise. Barack's transformational style also differentiates his brand of leadership.

Social Benefit of Brand
Brand identity presents itself when people use words like "we" and "our" when talking about a specific brand. The "buyer" begins to personalize the brand. Barack Obama successfully communicated the social benefits by getting a nation to believe that "Yes We Can". People join car clubs because they want to belong to the larger collective. A good brand creates a platform for larger identity. In essence, one considers the brand's (or leader's) success to be their own success.

Affective Connection to Brand
As you can image, the next step in the process is almost a no-brainer. Once a person ties their identity to that of the brand, the emotional connection begins to solidify. This is the catalyst to brand loyalty. Barack did his with his message of "hope". If he (President Obama) is successful, then we can all be successful. Our hope and optimism is closely tied to the brand. A person is offended when someone disparages the brand because it is considered a personal attack.

Behavioral Manifestation
Oh, yes, all this identification and emotional attachment actually drives new behaviors. Behaviors of loyalty. This is marketer's dream. Brand loyalty results in two clear behaviors: Increased commitment and Increased willingness to invest. President Obama, referred to this award a call to action. Guess what, World, he is calling all of us to action (at least America). During his campaign, his volunteers set records for number of hours served. His donors gave a astounding rates. I think people are committed to, and investing in, this brand of leadership.

Brand Value
In marketing, all of the above mentioned items result in an increased brand equity (or brand value). If a person is committed to a specific brand and willing to invest more in a specific brand, the specific brand is more valuable than its competitors. Barack's brand is incredibly valuable. And guess what? That pays dividends to those who bought in early.

Impact/New Reality
Think back to the original brand, the original style of leadership. If you bought in early, you are feeling pretty good about yourself. You feel like you had a crystal ball and others did not. If you did not buy in early, but you want to now (maybe post-Nobel Prize), the cost will be higher. The brand has appreciated. For the leader, the newly earned brand equity is also helpful feedback. More people are finding value in what the leader is selling. The leader's agenda is suddenly more easily advanced. The brand is stronger.

So, back to why President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace: it was for his vision of what could be. How freaking powerful does your brand have to be to sell people on a vision of the future--not on substantive accomplishment? Getting elected was a substantive accomplishment, but not in itself Nobel-worthy.

The warning: be wary of charisma.

Barack is a charismatic leader, but let's not bestow awards based on charisma. I am a President Obama supporter, but I think this award is a bit premature. While I think it is premature, I can see, from a branding perspective, why he won. He has sold the world on his vision.

Dear President Obama,
Please deliver on your brand promise. A lot of people have increased their individual commitment and willingness to invest. Brand loyalty is high. Now is the time to accomplish something substantive.


  1. I think of brand, in the case of Obama winning the Peace Prize, in terms of the brand called Perception of the United States of America by the World Community. Prior to Obama, Brand USA = Violent Rogue Superpower. After election of Obama, Brand USA = Potential Powerful Partner. After eight years (or 28 years one could argue) of a complete fuck you to the international community, when a President takes a different tack to pursue USA interests that might also help world interests, that is a huge 180 in terms of the MO of Brand USA. It is the potential of our new MO that garnered the prize.

  2. If you ask me (and you didn't, I realize), branding is nothing more than building controlled popularity. If we are now in the game of awarding Nobel Prizes to brands, then by irms-special-kind-of-math transitive property, the Peace Prize is a popularity contest.

    This is dumb. Some things should stay sacred.

    And P.S. I like Obama, for the record.

  3. Excuse me. I didn't mean to imply that your post was dumb. I mean the idea of such a thing is dumb.

  4. Irms,
    Charisma vs authenticity...different brand qualities for sure.

  5. That is a great perspective, and if there were a Brand Value award, he should have one. However, last time I checked, the Nobel prize was for ACCOMPLISHMENTS already achieved. As such, he is not a proper recipient for this award. What happened to politicians being humble public servants? Since when do we think of them as a Corporate Marketing Statement, and when did the role change from public servant to Consumer Market Coordinator? These "achievements" and "vision" are part of his JOB. Attempting to keep peace the world over is the job of any country leader. Perhaps there should just be several Nobel Peace prizes awarded to country leaders each year.

  6. SInclair,
    Great point. Keep world peace is probably in the president's job description. I doubt it would fall under "other duties as assigned" category.

    Time Magazine Man of the Year, sure. This almost like giving George Bush (#1) the Nobel Prize in Economics for his vision of "Read my lips, no new taxes." Accomplishments, please.

  7. Thank you for the laugh. I think that is a great analogy.