How To Shine Like Michelle Obama

A guide to how the world's most powerful woman shapes her image.

By Jenna Goudreau

First Lady Michelle Obama may be America's brightest star-outshining leaders from Washington to Hollywood. In a favorability poll conducted by Gallup in July, she topped the list, ranking higher than Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. Last month, CNN placed her approval rating at 65%-20 points above her husband's-and Forbes named her the most powerful woman in the world.

With every TV appearance or press shot, she moves markets. Research by New York University business professor David Yermack, published in this month's Harvard Business Review, reveals that Obama's style choices have contributed $2.7 billion to the retail sector. Companies see a 2.3% stock gain when she dons their products-five times that of a typical celebrity endorsement.

What's her secret? Experts say it's smart and strategic brand management. Just two years ago, she was criticized as "abrasive" and a potential "liability." She absorbed the feedback and retaliated with a brand makeover that boosted her approval rating 22 points since 2008. ForbesWoman breaks down her strategy.

She Gets The Job
"Her popularity increased rapidly after the 2008 election, and the group that really seemed to change their minds about her were Republican women," says Liza Mundy, author of Michelle: A Biography.

Obama's first lesson in leadership, it seems, was to understand her audience. Even in the midst of intense criticism, her children were consistently applauded and her parenting praised. She switched tactics immediately, de-emphasizing her career and branding herself as America's Mom-In-Chief. By stressing family-friendly values, she won over many of her biggest critics: conservative women.

In Pictures: 10 Secrets Of Michelle Obama's Leadership Style

Another important step in gaining mass appeal was Obama's respect for her position in the hierarchy. "She's probably done some studying on first ladies," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a business and marketing professor at Golden Gate University, "because she realized the country didn't want her to act like she was elected." She didn't go hard-charging after a controversial policy issue, like Hillary Clinton had with health care. Instead, she chose a social cause, the Let's Move health campaign, that was relevant to families and children and complimented her image as a concerned mom.

Her message also reinforces her husband's. Her fight against childhood obesity overlaps with his administration's focus on health care, but in a way that is positive and doesn't place her in the middle of a policy war. Similarly, she publicly offers support to her husband and speaks about being a mom. In this way, she presents herself as "the good wife" that most of America aspires to be, while also modeling modernity: We know that she is well-educated, confident and led a high-powered career, but she smartly reveals her softer, supportive side.

She Looks The Part
Obama has also used fashion to soften her image and connect with the people. "She's a fashionista," says Strahilevitz. "When Michelle wears something, people are talking. It makes her interesting."

According to Yermack's research, each appearance she makes contributes an average of $14 million to the economy. "There are a few things happening here," says Scott Berinato, an editor of the Harvard Business Review. First, her position as First Lady offers incredible visibility. More importantly, Berinato says that she is perceived as authentically interested in fashion. A celebrity's relationship with a brand is considered corrupt because people understand the money exchange. Obama's style choices, on the other hand, are considered her own and offer viewers a glimpse of her splashy and bold personality.

At the same time, Obama wears labels that are accessible. She mixes couture with mall brands like J. Crew and The Gap, and talks about great deals she found at Target or DSW. It adds to her message of being relatable and influences others' style choices. "France's First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wears only Dior," says Berinato. "It's not a brand that millions have access to or could afford." The combination of style and affordability speaks to her audience.

Finally, Berinato notes that she is lucky to have come to this role now. "Technology promulgates her brand instantly," he says. Jackie Kennedy, for example, was subject to a much longer news cycle. Obama might be photographed the moment she walks out the door. Then the pictures are uploaded within minutes, blogs light up with fashion chatter, and a reader can purchase the item online that same day.

Keep reading How To Shine Like Michelle Obama

See also:
10 Secrets Of Michelle Obama's Leadership Style

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