Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" Campaign: 10 Lifelong Marketing Lessons*

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: First Lady Michelle Obama is a brilliant marketer. Her signature "Let's Move" campaign, which promotes physical fitness particularly among youth, is an exercise in genius. How do we know?

Its' simple: Say "Let's Move" and you think of Michelle Obama. Say "Michelle Obama" and you think of this campaign. The two are inseparable.

I am also a supporter of Jamie Oliver's work in this area, but I think Michelle Obama is succeeding where he cannot - despite all his stunts with schoolbuses filled with sugar, gross food experiments with children and chicken nugget goo, and so on.

Here's why - 10 things the First Lady knows that Oliver seems not to. Lessons that are useful for the rest of us:

1. Permission: The First Lady chose an issue that she is "allowed" to talk about - not by the President but by the audience. This is not actual permission but something your audience finds acceptable for you to address. In general, the public expects the First Spouse to take on a social cause that is important yet non-controversial, non-threatening, and that unites people rather than divides them. Physical fitness fits the bill perfectly.

2. Connecting Herself to Us: She chose to take a leadership position on an issue that is relatable to her own life as well as to others'. Yes people gave her a hard time for talking about her kids' weight. I disagree. It was excellent that she did that. We all know she loves the kids. It wasn't to embarrass or exploit them. It was to say to other people, hey, our family is just like your family. We all have to deal with this. Which brings me to point number three.

3. Personal Passion: She is obviously passionate about this issue - and puts herself out there, physically, to promote it. Look at the video of her with the school kids. She is dancing. How awesome. And she maintains her dignity. She has confidence.

4. Positivity: Jamie Oliver always looks frustrated whenever he talks about how people keep on eating, and pushing, bad food. Michelle Obama is always looking positive and happy. It's "Let's Move" not "Don't Do That." No marketing campaign I can think of has ever succeeded with a negative message.

5. Humility: The First Lady has made the campaign about the issue. Not herself. In the video she says how much she loves Beyonce's music. It's about the issue, the kids, the great song. Most resolutely not her. She seems to have immersed herself so much in the issue that it transcends her. And I appreciate that.

6. "People of Wal-Mart": Hey. You've shopped there. I've shopped there. And so has the First Lady. Michelle Obama understands that marketing and snobbery do not mix. If you're trying to reach the mass market and accomplish large-scale social change, then prepare to roll up your sleeves and go where they are. That would be social media, Wal-Mart, and all the other places where regular people gather. And for G-d's sake talk in plain English that is simple to understand. Or make a video. Do what it takes to get through. The "Let's Move" partnership with Wal-Mart, the mass-market retailer is going to make a real difference in real people's lives.

7. Narrow, Incremental, Laser-Like Focus: The First Lady works incrementally to accomplish appealing, specific, measurable, achievable objectives in line with the overall goal. A great example is the nutritional labeling law that the Food and Drug Administration is implementing. Obama understands that knowing what's in the food we buy is a great help for those who want to make more conscious choices.

8. Quiet Persistence: Do you notice that the First Lady isn't blaring her message from the rooftops, and yet the message she is sending has gotten through? It's not just about her position. It's about the way she unassumingly does what she needs to do, without making it about herself. That lack of ego means that she has staying power in the long term. Her message is lasting and the messenger is not a turnoff.

9. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Marketers have a tendency to want to come up with their brilliant idea, say it once, and then pray that it has such a lasting impression on the world that they never have to say it again - they want to go on to the next great thing. But this is where the marketing craft has to pass the baton to brand-building, and the discipline of selling. The way you brand things is to repeat the message over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over. Till your head spins. When you think you can't say it again, find another way to say the same thing. This leads to selling. The item sells itself. You have pre-sold it in the customer's mind. Marketing without branding - the microphone without the repetition - is useless. Remember that the goal is to change behavior. In the private sector, this means selling product. In social marketing, this means to convince people to live their lives differently.

10. Balance: Michelle Obama always seems to know how to balance things. Balance between strength and softness. Between high fashion and ordinary "just like you" dress and manner. Between going out there and being the face of the brand, and being behind the scenes. By being balanced, she gains credibility.

The First Lady is doing other things right too. Like partnering well. Like leveraging both formal and informal structures of change - from the law to day-to-day practices and behaviors. The sociologist in me is singing.

By creating a multifaceted campaign that incorporates marketing best practices with personal commitment, not to mention partnering with everyone who reinforces the brand message, Michelle Obama has been extraordinarily successful in her effort to make America a healthier place.

I have learned a lot from her as a marketer. And I admire her as a mom. There is so much junk food out there, and it is hard to find affordable, healthy fare that is also convenient. I wish her the best success in this ongoing effort. And hope that the message disseminates and makes a difference around the world.

Starbucks and McDonald's, will you be the First Lady's next partners?

*This is marketing commentary not a political commentary either way. I work for the government, but all opinions, as always, are my own.