The Obama Franchise: Harnessing Activists' Energy

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In a three-part series, NPR examines the presidential campaigns as business school case studies — where the bottom line is votes rather than profit. Browse other reports:

Part Two: McCain, The Longstanding Brand That's Now Hip

Part Three: The business model for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign

Barack Obama i i

Sen. Barack Obama speaks to supporters in Scranton, Pa. Behind him is a sign with an "O" logo, which has been a consistent trademark of his campaign. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama speaks to supporters in Scranton, Pa. Behind him is a sign with an "O" logo, which has been a consistent trademark of his campaign.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
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Obama's campaign has relied on the support of grassroots organizers. Here, is a flyer from a book club started in 2006 in Austin, Texas, by an Obama supporter. David Kobeirowski hide caption

itoggle caption David Kobeirowski
book club flyer

Obama's campaign has relied on the support of grassroots organizers. Here, is a flyer from a book club started in 2006 in Austin, Texas, by an Obama supporter.

David Kobeirowski

Sen. Barack Obama was still months away from formally launching his presidential campaign when he went to the Texas Book Festival in 2006.

That's where he met a community activist named David Kobeirowski, who told the senator he was planning to start a book club to discuss The Audacity of Hope.

"He immediately raised his hand in the air and said, 'David, that is fantastic. This is the kind of grassroots spirit I want to have all over the country,'" Kobierowski recalled.

Kobierowski had just become, in effect, a Barack Obama franchisee. He wasn't a paid staffer. And he was acting independently, albeit with Obama's blessing.

Harnessing that kind of energy is one way for a start-up enterprise to quickly establish a national presence — whether they are selling hamburgers or Obama's health care policy.

Building the Brand

"The problem that you typically have when you're starting up a franchise chain is that nobody knows your brand," said franchising expert Marko Grunhagen, a professor at Eastern Illinois University. "So what you need early on is a few people who are willing to take on the risk, to invest their money, open their own stores and duplicate that initial idea many times over."

Kobierowski's book club served as a kind of storefront for Obama in Austin, Texas. The club held its first meeting in December 2006, and about 30 people showed up. A month later, there were more than twice that many participants. The following month, when Obama came to Austin after formally announcing his campaign, Kobierowski helped organize a rally for him that drew more than 15,000 people.

"I think he saw that early on, we were building this tremendous momentum, and he didn't want to squash that creative and that energetic power we were building throughout the community," Kobierowski said.

Over the next year, the volunteer book club, now known as Texans for Obama, kept working, even as Obama's paid staffers were preoccupied in Iowa. Campaign headquarters in Chicago provided support, including names and phone numbers of potential volunteers. But some of the best ideas bubbled up from below, and groups like Kobierowski's were encouraged to provide input on the senator's policies.

"You felt like you were part of something immediately, and that you were helping to make a difference," Kobierowski said. "It was more than just this pep rally. It was an actual movement."

Standardizing the Message

Kobierowski and other franchisees have been helping to spread that movement all around the country. That's one reason a freshman senator like Obama has been able to surpass more established politicians in both delegates and fundraising. So far, Obama has raised more than $200 million, with more than 40 percent of that coming from small donors.

When companies get to be that successful, they'll often start reining in their franchisees. Standards and central control become more important.

"The one dirty bathroom that gets noticed in the newspaper hurts franchisees all over the country," Grunhagen said.

Obama's campaign got a taste of that when volunteers in Houston opened an unauthorized campaign office, and local TV cameras spotted a Cuban flag on the wall. But that's been the exception. Overall, the campaign's graphics and appearance have been remarkably consistent.

Graphic design expert Michael Bierut of the Pentagram firm marveled at that consistency in a Newsweek interview, and he said it's no accident. The uniform blue signs with their signature "O" logo serve as a reassuring symbol of dependability, just like the familiar interstate signs for franchise hotels and fast-food chains.

"I've jokingly said to my wife, 'Someone who can coordinate all those fonts and make them all match perfectly, I trust them to come up with universal health care, and get us out of Iraq, and turn around the economy and do whatever else it takes,'" Bierut said.

Kobierowski still has one of the homemade flyers for that first Obama book club meeting, held 16 months ago. It looks a little amateurish next to today's mass-produced campaign signs. But just like an early McDonald's franchise, it helped get the ball rolling, so millions and millions could be served.

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