Having commanded a rumoured $65m global book deal with her husband, Michelle Obama’s eagerly awaited memoir, Becoming, will be the beneficiary of Penguin General’s biggest ever marketing spend. Although "pretty much a guaranteed bestseller", according to the Sunday Times, and "without a doubt... the single most exciting book to be published this year" in the estimation of Waterstones boss James Daunt, the team at Viking is nonetheless taking no chances in its bid to make the former First Lady’s autobiography a must-read—and not only among the bookish. The campaign’s highlights so far include a 30ft mural of Obama in the heart of Brixton, south London, commissioned by Viking and executed by acclaimed street artist Dreph. This has fuelled social media engagement, supported by a suite of social ads across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are estimated to reach 500,000 targeted consumers in the run-up to publication on 13th November. These ads include the use of vox pops with members of the public on why Obama has become "a voice for women everywhere".
Still to come is Obama’s sole visit to the UK to promote her book. She’s taking time out from a 10-stop North American tour in December to appear in conversation with novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at London’s Southbank Centre. Most of Penguin General’s spending splurge will also come post-publication. Projected to be seen by 50 million people, Viking has splashed out on all-singing, all-dancing "high-impact media" advertising, including moving billboard advertising at Waterloo station and an extensive Tube and four-sheet National Rail poster campaign, targeting "premium, heavy footfall stations".
"What do you expect—it’s Michelle Obama!" says Amelia Fairney, Penguin General’s communications director who, together with Poppy North on publicity and Rose Poole on marketing, is spearheading the campaign. "From the very beginning we approached this as a book that should have the widest possible market. We thought about it almost not as a book but as an entertainment product, akin to a major movie or video-game release, or a Beyoncé album. We saw it as a huge cultural moment and wanted to reach people who hardly ever bought books. We felt this was a book that people who don’t read very often—perhaps who only ever buy a book once every few years—would want to buy."
With this in mind, non-traditional media was always going to feature heavily in the campaign, says Fairney, revealing it is also PRH’s "biggest audio campaign of the year". Already "on track" to be the behemoth’s most pre-ordered non-fiction title of 2018, the audio edition will also be plugged on commercial radio during key breakfast and drive-time slots, with content read aloud by Obama herself. To further boost audiobook sales, advertising on Instagram has been booked, aiming to reach 100,000 listeners. The publisher will also work closely with audio-book retailers to access millions of established audiobook fans, and offer free audiobooks to influencers. To boot, the PRH Audio team has developed a special one-off podcast for release in December: "I am Becoming" will feature high-profile black British entrepreneurs, authors and celebrities discussing Obama’s role on the world stage as well as their own personal journeys of "becoming".
A clear factor that came into play when plotting the campaign was "Michelle Obama’s vision for the world". Keen to align the campaign with the things Obama stands for—as "a girl from the South Side [of Chicago]", lawyer and advocate for women and girls’ empowerment—PRH has revealed it will partner with gal-dem and Waterstones Gower Street to run a pop-up shop for a week (23rd–30th November) in Bloomsbury, central London, devoted to books by women and non-binary people of colour.
Staffed by gal-dem, Waterstones and Penguin workers, the shop will showcase prints of never-before-seen photos from Obama’s life (they also feature in Becoming), which will go on to be donated to Brixton’s Black Cultural Archives when the pop-up ends. The hope is to leave "a lasting legacy to the UK’s leading repository of the history of the black experience". The shop will also host a series of events, including a panel discussion on black motherhood, a book club event with Dialogue Books publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, a storytelling event with gal-dem assistant political editor Jinan Younis, and schools workshops on mental health and confidence.
An army of influencer fans—including Stormzy, Jameela Jamil and Caitlin Moran—are poised to post on publication day. And, with the media ravenous to access details of the Obamas’ life from the book, blanket coverage is expected on publication. But this is not to say Obama’s fame and prestige hasn’t come with its challenges, admits Fairney. "What’s been difficult is the fact we’ve had to keep everything so quiet. We don’t have proofs, we don’t have the book, we can’t reveal anything about its contents—they are heavily embargoed—so that makes you a bit limited in your pre-awareness activity," she says. "But it’s something you work around. We have kept drip-feeding little bits of information to try and feed the excitement—and it seems to be working." Asked how pre-orders are faring, PRH’s common refrain of confidentiality continues. Coyly, Fairney says: "I would say they’re healthy."