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Yes, we can! Companies ‘borrow’ from Obama’s ad campaign

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The most effective advertising campaign of 2008.

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A similar look from Pepsi.

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Starbucks jumps on board.

Interesting coincidence. In the past several months, Tropicana, Pepsi and Starbucks have come up with new logos and fonts. And all three designs bear a remarkable resemblance to the most effective advertising campaign of 2008, for perhaps the world’s most marketable brand right now: Barack Obama.

It really is a change these companies believe in.

Look around most American cities: on billboards, on buses, on trains, in coffee shops, in grocery aisles. There it is, that familiar “Change We Can Believe In” font, or perhaps symbols that closely resemble that familiar waves-of-change O that came to represent change and hope in 2008.

“The whole campaign was a phenomenon, and the idea of hope and change is very attractive to marketers,” says Lauren Miller, a graphic designer at MDesign in New York City. “Even if it’s not conscious, it still generates those feelings.”

And more specifically, experts say, the bold, clean, simple font, called Gotham, has come to represent something modern and elegant.

“It’s bold, it’s fresh, but it’s also sophisticated. When people see it, they see something familiar, comforting but also something cool.” says Cyrus Highsmith, a senior designer at the Font Bureau in Boston. “It’s really become one of the pre-eminent fonts of this generation.”

Pepsi has similar ideas.

“The Pepsi brand has always been steeped in youth,” says Nicole Bradley, a company spokeswoman. “With our new logo and font, we’re targeting people who share that sense of optimism and youth.”

Bradley says the design firm Arnell came up with the font and that it’s not identical to the Obama Gotham.

But to the untrained eye, it’s awfully close.

Pepsi’s brash, bright billboards line subway cars and intersections with messages like “Optimism” and “Together.”

Also, the new, wavier Pepsi design is similar to the Obama O, which was designed in 2006 by Sol Sender, a Chicago-based graphic designer who was contacted by an old classmate who knew the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod.

Enthusiasm for the font has had its drawbacks, however. When new Tropicana juice cartons used a Gotham-type font to replace the traditional red-straw-and-orange logo, customers were furious. Calling the cartons sterile and generic, drinkers were so outraged that sales fell 20 percent in January and February. On Feb. 23, the company announced it would return to the original design.

The trend is also reaching the multitudes of Starbucks branches in cities and suburbs around the country. Many now feature posters advertising the company’s Shared Planet campaign, which involves initiatives as varied as working to bring green building projects to New Orleans, sending aid to Africa and encouraging customers to reduce their carbon footprints.

“It’s our commitment to doing business in ways that are good to the earth and to each other,” the campaign’s Web site reads.

But perhaps what is most eye-catching is the initiative’s logo: a hybrid of plentiful fields and a coffee-bean sun. Step back and it’s nearly identical to the O. It comes as no surprise, then, that the posters feature a similar font.

“You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee,” they say.

Experts say these similarities are not surprising. Bobby Calder, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University who has written about the effectiveness of political symbols, says there are several reasons why the campaign has permeated corporate culture to such an extent.

“First, you have what are called design trends,” Calder says. “You have a trend. Designers knowingly start going along the same lines—subconsciously and consciously. Second, you have this whole underlying notion of change. From a marketing level, that kind of theme is very attractive.”

Calder says the Obama design was a simple, intuitive job that was able to strike a chord. “The campaign looked at the design and said, ‘This represents exactly what we are taking about with youthful change,’” he says. “It worked perfectly.”

The popularity of the graphics is also unusual for a political campaign.

“Though the Kennedy campaign had a similar cultural relationship, this probably was sort of a new wrinkle, where you have commercial marketing learning from political marketing. It was usually the other way around,” Calder says.

Perhaps one reason the symbols have caught on is what the campaign represented in a more abstract sense.

“Politics has always been behind in this area until this,” says John Donovan, creative director of McMahon Squier and Associates, a Democratic political-consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. “This really was the first campaign that was about creating a brand identity. It really was about selling a brand.”

Donovan also says the effectiveness of the campaign’s graphics will also help chart a new course in politics.

“He set the bar so high. Campaign managers are now going to demand much more than they did,” Donovan says.

And some might even try the exact same thing, like Obama’s former foe Sarah Palin. The “change” font appears front and center on her Web site.

E-mail: jwy2103@columbia.edu