Is Obama the New Coke?

By John TantilloMarketing and Brand Expert

Folks, first some history. In the early eighties, one of Jimmy Carter's bright young political advisers, Pat Caddell, landed the plum marketing gig of guiding Coca Cola into the future--and he almost ran that venerable brand into the ground

I'm talking about the "New Coke" debacle. Threatened by Pepsi's growing market share and driven by data that said that the consumer wanted sweeter drinks, Coca Cola scrapped its time-honored soda formula and introduced New Coke.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton both knew this about their Target Markets: the American people could be stretched, but in the end political marketing was the order of the day: Americans' fundamental needs and beliefs cannot be forgotten.

The outrage was deafening. People couldn't believe that their soda was being taken away from them. Coca Cola listened and New Coke is now just a distant memory.

How could all of the polls, surveys and consumer data have been wrong?

Well, they didn't take into account what really mattered to the consumer: choice and continuity. One more thing --and it's a biggie-- Coke was thinking about cola drinkers notCoke drinkers. It forgot its target market.

So I ask, is President Obama the New Coke?

The electorate seemed to want change in 2008 and Obama seemed to represent the change they wanted. This change was about politicians moving beyond partisanship to get things moving again in Washington --it was not about big government solving everyone's problems. It wasn't a Democrat or a Republican that the electorate wanted. No, it was a person of changewho would not put the same old practices into political play.

In the early eighties, the cola consumer seemed to want change too, but when they got change, they didn't like what they got. The people drinking Pepsi didn't start drinking New Coke. And Coke drinkers stopped drinking the New Coke. This is the worst possible marketing outcome for any product or political brand -- you end up pleasing noneof the people allof the time.

There are two basic scenarios for Brand Obama at this point.

One, the electorate thought they were getting one thing in Obama and instead got something very different. In other words, they wanted the change he said he would bring, but dislike the change he is actually bringing and actually believes in. In this scenario, Obama is what he is and simply won't be able to adapt to what the Target Market demands --this spells a short stay -- one term -- in the White House.

Two, Obama isthe change the electorate wants and he is capable of embodying this change. But the president has lost sight of his Target Market's needs and is falling prey to inside-the-Beltway realities and left-leaning pieties and interest groups.

This is the New Coke scenario. Instead of subtly altering the ingredients of the product to adapt to changing tastes, you make a big product change, bring people's attention to that change and alienate your Target Market. Go ahead and do that Mr. President --but only if you want to squander the marketing success that brought you to the show and got you elected president of the United States!

The problem for Brand Obama is that once you become the New Coke, it's very hard to become "Classic Coke" again. Every compromise, every pork-filled, partisan program, every pro-big government, anti-free market message drives his brand farther and farther from the Target Market that elected him.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton both knew this about their Target Markets: the American people could be stretched, but in the end political marketing was the order of the day: Americans' fundamental needs and beliefs cannot be forgotten.

Even though these men came from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, as a political marketer each president remained true to the fundamentals of the American electorate that has always believed in basic fair play, the power of individual freedom and the limited uses of government.

The first 100 days in office are tricky for all presidents. In this short testing period, Kennedy went a long way to losing the South to the Republicans for a quarter century.

But if Brand Obama doesn't want to remain the New Coke, he must make some strong statements that drive home that he is not merely a more of the same liberal Democratic brand.

There are some signs of hope for his brand. This week even as he said he would sign the omnibus spending bill, he criticized the earmarks in it and promised that in the future this kind of pork would not stand. A veto, though nearly impossible, would have sent an even better message to his Target Market.

On Tuesday, he even implied that he's going to take on the powerful teachers union to deliver on his promise of improving our education system. That's big and if he actually does it we might just be spared another New Coke.

Stay tuned.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and brand expert. For more from John click here.