Fineman: Obama's Brand-Name Strategy

Barack Obama lives by brands, from his white sox cap to his Harvard Law connections to his campaign's rising-road logo. In 2008 he became a global brand—a "tangible, visual articulation of a 'thought style'," as marketing guru Jonah Disend puts it.

Having won as one, the president-elect is now busy branding his administration with big-time political and business names that are products of big-time institutions—the Ivy League, the Marine Corps, the Fed. If he has a "thought style" right now it's not "change we can believe in" but, he has to hope, "rock-solid competence."

It will soon fall to Obama to restore the world's shattered confidence in the United States—in its ability to govern itself, revitalize its economy and lead the planet. Without that confidence, investors foreign and domestic will remain reluctant to plunge back into the American market. The consensus of the financial experts is that there is perhaps $3 trillion in cash sitting on the sidelines, much of that money in sovereign wealth funds in China, the Persian Gulf and Scandinavia. "We need a lot of that money back here," says Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. "By hiring and associating with well-known, well-respected figures, Obama is saying to investors: It's safe to come back. America knows what it's doing."

Some of these figures are known quantities in Congress—they are former members, even—which means they can do their own political heavy lifting on the Hill, saving Obama time as well as husbanding his clout. In all, they fall into three categories:

Ingredient brands. "These are the kind that are 'inside' another brand and help bolster it," says Haden Edwards, a New Hampshire marketer. Examples: "Intel Inside," NutraSweet. The equivalent in Obama's administration will be Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the soon-to-be chief of staff and taskmaster of the Hill. Tim Geithner, the New York Fed chief nominated for Treasury secretary, is well known to the inside players of world finance.

Driver brands. "These are leaders in their field, and they influence what goes on across their market," says Edwards. General Motors used to be an example; Microsoft remains one. The analogue here is Hillary Clinton, half of a global, and internationally revered, American brand. In the campaign, Obama didn't praise the Clinton economic record often; now he wants to take advantage of it for planetary advertising and marketing purposes.

Legacy brands. "These are respected for their longevity and for the trust they have built up with consumers over many years," says Edwards. In business it's Procter & Gamble or Colgate-Palmolive. On Obama's team, think of Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman; Robert Gates, the holdover at the Pentagon; and Gen. James Jones, a 6-foot-5 Marine who fought in Vietnam, served in Europe and will be national-security adviser.

Some of the unknown policy tyros and campaign diehards hoping to get in on the ground floor if Obama won now find themselves hardly in the building. "We are getting layered by all of the people who have been around politics forever," one complained to me (anonymously, so as not to hurt what chances there may be). But Obama seems to have concluded that, from every direction, he needs help boosting the global brand he's most concerned about these days: it's green and off-white with old-fashioned numerals and an engraved portrait of George Washington front and center.

Join the Discussion