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February 16, 2007

Barack Obama, Pontiac, and energizing the base

Barack_obamaby Josh Bernoff

Have a good look at Barack Obama's website. Forget whether you agree with his politics or if you agree he ought to be the Democratic nominee for president. Just ask yourself -- what can I learn from this?

(For the record, I'm not a supporter of any candidate right now -- I'm just observing community strategy.)

Barack Obama, like all political candidates, has a base. A small (percentagewise) group of enthusiastic supporters. A base is where the energy in a campaign comes from. The base needs to listen, but even more it needs to talk. It needs to listen to what the candidate is saying, so it can understand these messages and pick them up and rebroadcast them. And it needs to talk, to others in the base to gain energy, discuss, and share best practices, but also to people outside the base. In fact, the most powerful force in politics is probably people in the base talking to people they know.

BarackObama.com is a social network. Once you sign up, you have a profile. Here, for example, is Teisha, an energetic young woman in Maryland who created a group just today called "The Secret" Believers For President Obama. Maybe her ideas will catch on with other believers and become part of Obama's main message. Maybe they won't -- it's an evolutionary process, and probably somebody else has a better idea about why Obama should be president.

BarackObama.com has blogs, groups, events, friends, and fundraising. And it has its own coverage in the Chicago Tribune today. Are you jealous? You should be.

Your brand has supporters too. It also has a base. Those supporters could be talking about it, whether you sell motorcycles or cold remedies. They could be surfacing the best ideas for your brand -- ideas better than your own ideas or your ad agency's. They could be talking about you -- in fact they probably are. Are you listening?

Pontiac_logojpg This came up recently when Charlene and I were interviewing Mark-Hans Richer from Pontiac. Richer is the point man behind Pontiac's community efforts and the Pontiac Underground site on Yahoo. Who's on these sites? People who loves Pontiacs -- Firebirds and Trans Ams and GTs. When I asked Richer why it matters if a bunch of Pontiac lovers talk to each other, he pointed out that the more they talk the more likely they are to buy, but more importantly, the more they talk the more energized they get, which makes them advocates to people outside the enthusiast group. Richer is energizing the base. Just like Barack Obama.

Now energizing the base has its challenges. For one, the base may not share the messages about your brand that you want to emphasize. But it's their brand -- if they think its something different than you do, maybe you should be listening.

Which brings us back to Senator Obama. My question is, what if his base has a different idea of what's important than he does? Should he change? In brands, that's called research. In politics, it's called pandering, at least if it's your opponent talking about it. And those ideas, including some Obama will find hateful, are going to be right there on his Web site. How Obama deals with that may tell us a lot about what kind of president he might be.

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