Obama Must Stop Dancing With the Stars

By John TantilloMarketing Expert/Founder and President, Marketing Department of America

President Obama needs to get off the celebrity magic carpet ride before it's too late.

These might seem like strong words, but from experience I've seen irreparable damage done to brands --both product and personal-- during the good times -- the times when the brand could supposedly do no wrong.

I'm beginning to worry that our newly elected president can't quite believe that he is president.
Barack Obama

1) He must always keep the needs of his Target Market (the American people) in mind

2) Acting like the president of the United States before he was even sworn in.

I still believe that President Obama is one of the best poli-marketers we have ever seen, but lately -- especially on his 8 day trip to Europe-- I'm beginning to worry that our newly elected president can't quite believe that he is president.

He seems to be dancing with the stars (not to mention with stars in his eyes) when he should be doing the Continental - you know, that smooth old dance of state craft that like the classic song isvery subtle, the Continental, because it does what you want it to do.

This lapse is being re-enforced by the buzz of celebrity that surrounds both him and the first lady wherever they have gone and, more disturbingly, President Obama seems to be encouraging it with self-conscious references to other quasi-celebrity presidents like JFK (he made a reference to a Kennedy joke in his Prague speech).

What's wrong with celebrity? Nothing. If you're a celebrity.

Simply put: President Obama can't afford to be a celebrity.

Why? Because a celebrity ultimately can't stick to one brand image for long (but a president needs to). A celebrity must constantly be changing to meet the expectations of his or her fans who tire of the over-exposure and every so often need to see a new side of their favorite star (in behavioral terms a celebrity's Target Market "satiates" more quickly).

Madonna, for example, is a great manager of her celebrity status because she understands that every so often (about every 16 months or so) she has to present us with a new version of her brand and, usually, this version swings from extreme to extreme (i.e., from reserved English country woman who writes children's books to leather-wearing, globe-trotting femme fatale). Madonna 2.0, Madonna 2.2 and so on.

Our media celebritizes individuals as fast as it can -- it's a giant vortex that sucks everyone in, divas and ordinary people alike, and then spits out celebrities. Then, this same media subjects them to the harsh standards of celebrity and gives them a shelf life that is shorter than that of most milk products.

Once you become a celebrity, there's no going back. You've punched the celebrity time clock and time speeds up.

Look what has happened to Warren Buffet. For years this extraordinary investor and philanthropist managed to function powerfully without really being famous and certainly without being a celebrity. But over the last six months that has changed with his high profile involvement in the Wall Street mess. For all those decades he labored out there in drowsy Omaha and his brand grew solidly and respectably -- most of all he was basically left alone to do what he does best: make a lot of money.

Then celebrity hit and after the initial infatuation with the "wise man" inevitably the media got tired of Buffet and he too was subjected to the kind of immediate and superficial judgment that comes with celebrity (you can read why he is such a great brand despite this here)

Last week someone took issue with my core point about Barack Obama, namely his risk of overexposing his brand. The guy made what I consider the classic mistake of thinking that just because of the way informationtravelsthese days the world has changed (I'm referring to our 24/7 cable and Web-based culture), the basics of brand exposure and personal branding have radically altered. They have not. In other words, just because you can social network, Twitter, or post a picture on Facebook as president, it doesn't mean you should.

Basically, over-exposure is almost like the boy who cried wolf. The strength of the presidency is this: when you address the nation it is automatically commands attention. It is important. Unless, of course, you're constantly on the Web, appearing on TV and radio news programs and popping up on nightly celebrity gossip mags. If that's the case then in some important respects you actually cease to be president.

So what should President Obama do? First, he needs to downplay his celebrity. This means that he might have to get a little boring and make himself scarce. Fewer interviews, fewer press conferences and fewer multi-media outreach opportunities. He needs to lower his brand's celebrity temperature and reduce celebrity swelling.

Next, instead of responding five times to the "three a.m. crisis" (as he apparently did with the North Korean missile launch), he should respond once and memorably. He needs to take a page from his own playbook. Remember the Jeremiah Wright response? He gave his speech about race just once. He gave it definitively and then he let the chips fall where they may (though later in 2008 he almost went off the rails with what I called the "inevitability factor").

What kind of speech should he be delivering these days? Well, the kind of speech he gave in Prague after he delivered the celebrity joke is a start. This was a serious, ground-breaking speech. He could have probably cut out some of the self-criticism (left-leaning intellectuals would have loved it but they're not his Target Market), but basically this was the kind of speech only a president of the United States can give.

Now, we'll just have to wait and see if he stops dancing with the stars and starts doing the Continental.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics (and almost everything else in life) when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is branding editor for Fridge Magazine, the magazine for small business owners and entrepreneurs. He is the author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."