WASHINGTON – The guys hawking Barack Obama T-shirts and trinkets on the corners of downtown Washington have some new competition in the selling frenzy building up to the president-elect's inauguration Tuesday — Corporate America.
Companies ranging from global giants like soda and snacks maker PepsiCo to a local grocery chain offering cakes with Obama's face in icing are jumping on the Obama commercial wave. Others, like the Swedish home store Ikea, are hoping consumers take Obama's mantra of "change" to heart so much that they go out and buy furniture to mark the change in the White House.
It is relatively rare for corporations leery of alienating consumers with any whiff of politics to associate themselves with a political figure, according to marketing experts. But at a time when many Americans have snapped their wallets shut during a grinding recession, the groundswell of popularity that Obama has generated with his upbeat campaign themes, along with the symbolism he brings as the nation's first black president, are likely too good for many battered retailers to pass up.
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"This occasion is more exciting than most presidential inaugurations," said Noel Hankin, senior vice president for multicultural relations for Hennessy, which is selling a limited edition bottle of cognac with the number "44" on it to mark Obama's spot in the line of presidents. "We think this is an appropriate way to celebrate and honor him."
Obama's campaign and election touched off a marketing blitz unparalleled by any recent presidents.
Street vendors in the nation's capital were selling Obama items next to the usual FBI hats and Washington T-shirts well before his election Nov. 4. But the marketing potential around him became clear the next day, when people eager to own keepsakes of the historic event bought out newspapers nationwide.
Many papers plan to print extra copies Tuesday to capitalize again on the demand for all things Obama. The hometown Washington Post plans four separate editions on Tuesday and Wednesday along with an afternoon extra on Inauguration Day. Newspapers in San Francisco, St. Louis and Obama's hometown Chicago Tribune are also planning afternoon extras on Tuesday.
The television shopping channel QVC is planning special live broadcasts from Washington, which will include parts of the inauguration, parade and an inaugural ball later that night. It is also selling Obama collectibles that range from Obama coins to baseballs painted with the Democratic donkey or Republican elephant.
Ice cream maker Ben and Jerry's made "Yes Pecan!" ice cream studded with pecans that plays on Obama's "Yes we can" campaign slogan. Seattle soda company Jones Soda is selling a new flavor of orange cola it calls "Orange You Glad for Change." Six packs of the bottles that have Obama's face on the label cost $14.99. Mapmaker Rand McNally is offering a "fabMAP" cloth map of the parade route on one side and a beaming Obama above the Capitol on the other.
Other companies, especially those that appeal to the younger consumers that supported Obama in droves, are piggybacking on Obama's messages of hope and change.
The level of marketing is rare for a president, said John Quelch, a Harvard business school professor who specializes in marketing.
"There is a lot of goodwill, a lot of optimism around Obama at this point," Quelch said. "Until the honeymoon period is over, why not try and take a free ride on his coattails."