As the COVID-19 pandemic forced live event organizers to rethink their strategies this year, there was particular attention on how virtual events would play out in the run-up to the presidential election.
More specifically, how President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign would adjust.
Biden’s early retail campaigning in the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire had had some bumps, and the former vice president did not have the same avidity for social media as his opponent, President Donald Trump, who had spent his entire presidency building a fanatical online following and presence that could easily adapt to the virtual space.
At the time, analysts including David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief political strategist, were candid about the steep hill Biden faced against Trump, specifically in the digital arena. “For Mr. Biden, the challenge is to transform a campaign that lagged behind many of his Democratic competitors during the primary in its use of digital media and timely, state-of-the-art communications techniques,” Axelrod wrote in a New York Times op-ed co-authored with fellow Obama political strategist David Plouffe. “As much as Mr. Trump personally revels in television exposure, his campaign has been digital-first from the start. Team Trump knows where and how voters get their information and tests a tremendous amount of content to find the winning material their targets will consume and share.”
To help balance the digital scales, Biden’s team tapped the little-known Portland, Oregon-based live video platform Brandlive.
As the live events business dwindled during the pandemic, Brandlive pivoted from producing in-person experiences for corporations to creating higher-end virtual events—and the company has seen considerable growth. Since January, Brandlive has gone from 18 employees to more than 110. And revenue has grown 10-fold and is now approaching $20 million. Part of what has driven Brandlive’s success has been its growing cadre of high-profile clientele looking for more visually appealing options for virtual events, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Martha Stewart, Star Jones, Jennifer Lopez, Whoopi Goldberg, and, of course, now President-Elect Biden.
Brandlive became the crown jewel of Biden’s digital strategy during his campaign, elevating everything from virtual fundraisers to rallies—not bad for a company that almost ran out of money as it was attempting to reconfigure its strategy at the start of the pandemic with a brand-new CEO at the helm.
“We were just flying by the seat of our pants,” says Sam Kolbert-Hyle, CEO of Brandlive. “We’re grateful for it because it made for a super-resilient company. We’re able to tough it out through that adversity period, and now we’re just a rocket ship. And I don’t think most people know our story yet.”
“Pivot like a rocket”
Kolbert-Hyle was introduced to Brandlive after the investment firm he’s a partner in, Archivist Capital, invested in—and eventually bought—the company. Initially, Kolbert-Hyle was just on Brandlive’s board, but when the company’s original cofounder and CEO, Fritz Brumder, stepped down in 2018 and the CEO who replaced him “didn’t really work out for a variety of reasons,” Kolbert-Hyle says, he was asked to step up and figure out how Brandlive could expand.
Brandlive had established itself working mainly with apparel and retail brands, including Nike, Adidas, Levi’s, and so forth, to create live videos and events showcasing products. But Kolbert-Hyle noticed that clients were also using Brandlive’s services for their all-hands meetings. So he allocated the revenue coming in from Brandlive’s more traditional events to build out features that catered specifically to helping facilitate all-hands meetings for corporations.
Then businesses hit the pause button as they faced the uncertainty produced by the early, confusing days of stay-at-home orders and its economic effects. “We almost ran out of money. There was a point in time where I didn’t know if this business would carry on,” Kolbert-Hyle says. “Customers were canceling events that they had scheduled and that we were expecting to have the revenue from to reinvest back into this next stage. When we caught our breath, we had to pivot like a rocket.”
Kolbert-Hyle says clients began calling to see if Brandlive could improve the quality of their remote live streams to create a more TV-like experience. At first, that meant using video from Zoom and filtering it through broadcast platforms like Open Broadcaster Software or Wirecast. That worked fine for, say, three people. But Kolbert-Hyle says the more clients wanted on video, the harder it became to facilitate on the back end.
So he diverted the millions he planned on investing in Brandlive’s all-hands product into building out software that could accommodate large groups without sacrificing quality.
During this pivot toward hosting remote events, lawyer and TV personality Star Jones’s team reached out to Brandlive in April to power an event for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority Jones was hosting, which featured Senator Kamala Harris as one of the panelists.
“It was one of the larger events Brandlive had ever done,” Kolbert-Hyle says. “We were able to pinch ourselves and figure it out. After we did that, we started to get more and more events through word of mouth.”
Kolbert-Hyle says Brandlive went from doing 10 events a quarter to hundreds a day, with more celebrity clientele reaching out. And toward the end of May, so did Biden’s campaign.
Not a moment too soon.
“They were a small company asked to do a huge thing.”
The pandemic made it clear that both Biden and Trump would have to incorporate virtual elements into their campaigns. But while Trump has spent the past four years building a machine around his online presence, Biden was coming in relatively cold—and it showed.
From the infamous goose incident to his basement dispatches, the critiques of Biden’s virtual presence were swift and abundant. It was clear that Biden was never going to have the level of bombastic pomp that the Trump campaign whipped up with digital campaigns like his nightly webcasts or The Right View, a right-wing derivative of ABC’s The View.
That just isn’t Biden’s brand. But that didn’t mean more couldn’t be done.
“Joe Biden’s secret sauce is that he is the best retail politician that has ever come on the scene,” says Rob Flaherty, digital director of Biden’s team. “He is an empathetic, caring, social connective guy. Those are also his values. We were spending a lot of time trying to think through how do we present those elements of him, but also make that part of the digital strategy.”
After some research, Flaherty and his team came across Brandlive. Flaherty says they were trying to find options that would best replicate a rally in the sense of being able to collect the information of participants to contact later in regard to campaign volunteering. He was also interested in the new possibilities for fundraising.
“One of the things that we were really obsessed with was how do we not just do the online version of the offline thing, but how do we actually do stuff that wouldn’t have been possible had we not been in a virtual space?” he says. “With a traditional fundraiser, you have 10 people show up and pay, let’s say, $10,000. But through [Brandlive], we could have 100,000 people show up and pay $10.”
Brandlive powered 230 campaigns for Biden’s team, securing more than $30 million in donations. Its largest fundraising event, featuring President Barack Obama, pulled in more than $11 million with more than 470,000 views. Brandlive was also behind the wave of celebrity reunion fundraisers including the casts of The Princess Bride, Parks and Rec, The West Wing, and more. The company launched a “house party” feature, hosting 20,000 small house parties for Biden supporters. And Brandlive also powered more than 50% of the Democratic National Convention’s daily meetings from Wisconsin.
Flaherty admits he was concerned at first that Brandlive wouldn’t be able to handle the scale of some of these events. For example, 20,000 people were expected for The Princess Bride reunion, but 200,000 showed up. Flaherty says the Brandlive team was “collaborative” and “cooperative” and that he sees these virtual gated events in politics as something worth “keeping in our toolbox.”
“They were a small company asked to do a huge thing,” Flaherty says. “Brandlive was a critical tool the whole way through, and they were great partners.”
High praise for a partnership that almost didn’t happen.
“To be frank, I was really unsure whether we should take the account,” Kolbert-Hyle says. “We were paranoid that we were going to get attacked by foreign actors. We decided to take the account, but to do it completely under the Biden brand. And what that meant is we spent a lot of money and a lot of energy working directly with the campaign to ensure that the security was through the roof.”
The tougher question, perhaps, is whether or not Brandlive would’ve consented to working with the Trump campaign if it had come to Brandlive first.
“I just don’t know the answer to that,” Kolbert-Hyle admits. “We work with clients who are all over the political spectrum. Some of our big clients are very conservative. But I do think that our employees were feeling very grateful that they were able to make a difference.”