On Tuesday, 4 November 2008, we’ll be going to the polls in the U.S. to cast our ballot for the 44th president of our crisis laden young nation. It’s Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin for the Republican Party versus Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden leading the Democratic Party.
Regardless of the outcome it’s fair to say that this has been a hard fought and hotly contested battle not just between the candidates themselves but their political parties and ideologies. It has also been a highly crafted (although the “thoughtfulness” of the crafting for each may be debated) marketing campaign to win the White House. Marketers for the candidates have been operating behind the scenes to register voters and win votes to secure the election for their candidate.
As we stated in an earlier DISPATCHES article, Lessons from Political Marketing, political marketing has come a long, long way. The stakes are high. It’s “win or go home.” It’s four years or maybe even eight in office. The marketing is quite sophisticated. We cited many important lessons for marketers that may be applied to help drive preference for their brands. This initial article seems to have struck a nerve. Many of our subscribers lavished compliments on it. Given the response, and the race to the rapidly approaching finish line, we are offering what we feel are more lessons from political marketing.
Here are some thoughts for your consideration:
BOATS & HELICOPTERS:
It’s the “experience” stupid – No, please don’t be offended. We’re not calling you stupid. Instead, this is taken from former president Bill Clinton’s race for the White House versus George Bush Senior. In this case, as then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton played it, it was all about the economy stupid. (Interestingly, we seem, some 16-years later, to be back, in large part, to this same issue.) Senior Bush didn’t get it. The American people did. So they voted Bill Clinton in, and George Herbert Walker Bush out, of office.
The “brand” is about more than the product itself. The relationship is built upon the experience it delivers relative to the expectations of its customers. The Republican brand has held the presidency for the past eight years. During this time it has not delivered what many Americans would consider to be a positive experience. And, when people have not had a positive experience with a brand they will consider going somewhere else. And, when there is a succession of negative experiences such as when people feel they have been over-promised, under-delivered, lied to, cheated, or in some way taken advantage of, they will reject the brand and pledge their allegiance to one they perceive to be more in keeping with their values. At the very least they will give something else a try!
Get beyond the product or service you sell. Think about the customer experience your brand delivers. This is particularly apropos during difficult economic times. And, these are hard times. Does your brand provide a relevant positive experience for its customers? Does its price represent a worthwhile value that exceeds the features and attributes of the product? Will the experience you provide immunize your brand from competitive price inroads? If not, get back to work.
Position the brand. Position the competition – Far too many of the participants to our training programs, such as the Brand Positioning & Communications College, do not have a Brand Positioning Strategy for their offering, whether it be a product or a service. We are quick to point-out to them that this does not mean they do not have a brand positioning. We define brand positioning as “the way we want customers to perceive, think and feel about our brand (note, not product) relative to competition.” People will have perceptions about your offering regardless of whether you have a strategy statement for it or not. The questions are: Do you know how your brand is perceived? And, importantly, is that the way you want your brand to be perceived? Another important question is how did customers develop their perception of your brand in the first place? Is it something that you or your predecessors did? Consciously, or unconsciously? Or is it something your competitors have done to you?
Senator Barack Obama has repeatedly hammered out a positioning for John McCain as being another George W. Bush. In turn, he has positioned himself and his party as being and bringing a needed “change.” This is a compelling promise, particularly in light of the aforementioned negative experience with the Republican Party with George Bush at its helm. Senator McCain has attempted to demonstrate that he is his own man, and not George Bush. During one of the debates he remarked to Senator Obama that if he wanted to run against George Bush then he should have pursued the presidency four years earlier. Senator McCain has positioned himself as the “maverick,” one who bucks the system to go his own way to do what he believes is right for America. His promise is one of “reform” as contrasted to the Democratic Party’s promise of “change.” In turn, he and Governor Palin have attempted to position Senator Obama as being inexperienced, a rock star (given his oft reported and claimed messianic-like popularity that travels beyond our borders) and, as that does not appear to have been enough, a “socialist.” Now that is quite a damning label in a capitalistic society.
Your brand’s positioning is made-up of what you have done and are doing and what competition is doing too. Positioning is not just an absolute. It’s also a relative thing. Competition will always have a frame-of-reference for their positioning. That frame-of-reference is likely your brand. If they are not making the contrast explicitly you better believe they are making implicit comparisons. Sometimes their comparisons are not so visible (as in countries that do not permit comparative advertising). They are operating at point-of-sale and/or at the time of decision through their sales force to position you to lose.
It’s therefore important to know your competitors’ positioning and how they may be positioning your brand when crafting a brand positioning strategy of your own. Our brand positioning needs to be competitive, ownable and enduring – even in the face of competitive attempts to reposition us.
Create brand champions – Recently, while working in Los Angeles, I had dinner with a family friend who is living there. One of the many topics we talked about was political strategy since his family has been and continues to be active on the political front. In fact, his father had run for Illinois state representative some several years earlier. My question to him was why McCain didn’t move-off the right, particularly since the conservative segment of his own party doesn’t embrace him, and occupy the middle. I hypothesized that, “All he needs to do is win the middle. The far right of his party has to go along with him. What else are they going to do? They are not going to vote Obama since he represents the left.” I thought this line of reasoning to be sound. This wasn’t about advocating McCain. It was merely entertaining strategic options and the potential impact on the outcome of this contest. His reply was quite interesting. He taught me something. Basically he said if the right wasn’t engaged they would not be motivated to get out the vote for McCain. They would not go door to door to register new voters nor would they be likely to take out a bus and transport people to the voters’ booths. It really is about creating “brand champions.”
The Democratic Party has been most successful in creating champions for their brand and cause. Senator Obama has created an extensive network of volunteers. These volunteers believe in him and his promise for America. They work tirelessly on his behalf to help him secure the presidency. Senator Obama recognizes the value of this volunteer corps. In fact, he has been thinking and talking about how he might utilize them if he should win the election. He appreciates the value of brand champions and what they could do not only to help him win the election but transform the country too.
Brand champions are about more than securing the endorsement of authorities or key opinion leaders, many of who are viewed by the larger population as shills for the company. Instead, it’s about getting customers to be loyalists, highly visible and vocal loyalists. These customers feel a real connection and ownership with your brand. They are not likely to be swayed by inducements from competitors. They will “talk-up” your brand to family and friends. They will ask for your brand from their providers whether they be members of the retail trade, medical community, etc. They will not make a purchase if your brand is not made available to them. And, they will make their displeasure regarding your absence known to those who stand between you and their brand. Apple is a good example of a company that creates brand champions. The term that they have used in the past for their internal champions has been “evangelists.” MAC, IPod and IPhone all have their consumer champions. These loyalists are advocates. They’re evangelists. They would rather fight than switch. Think about it. What would it take for you to create champions in support of your brand?
Don’t forget brand character – A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (see below)
claims “Brands sum up candidates.” The article suggests that Senator Obama is a MAC while Senator McCain is a PC. That about sums-up the brand character of each to anyone who knows a MAC from a PC. But there’s more. The article goes on to identify Senator Obama as a James Bond man and Senator McCain as Jack Bauer (the gritty character in the television series “24”). Obama is Sam Adams, the micro-brew, and McCain is Budweiser, the brew for the blue collar mass that makes-up middle class America. Senator Obama is Terra, Exotic Vegetable Chips, whereas Senator McCain is Cheetos. One is cool, elegant, suave and hip. The other is traditional, conservative and in your face. Got the picture?
Whereas competitive framework gets at “what” your brand is, brand character is about “who” your brand is. It is a strategic element, and often an overlooked one, of your brand positioning strategy. It helps differentiate products with similar characteristics and benefits. It can make a difference in getting customers to affiliate with your brand. But not every marketer appreciates this. Some think this is only for consumer brands. However, we see in this election that it is yet another way political marketers employ to differentiate the candidates. Also, a participant to one of our recent training programs told us that his medical device brand was perceived as a Rolls Royce by surgeons. Think about this too. Number one it evidences that brand character is in play even in the medical device arena. And, two, it raises the question that, perhaps, the offering is perceived to be more than needed – particularly in these tough economic times where customers may opt for generally accepted quality – especially when the brand’s role is relatively minor in the scheme of a medical procedure.
To ignore or forget brand character is to put an artificial ceiling on the competitiveness of your brand. We prefer to craft a brand character that derives from the brand bundle and establishes the relationship of the brand to the customer.
Evidence your conviction – This is another way for us to say, “put your money where your mouth is,” or “walk the talk.” It’s about taking action not just merely talking about it. Obama’s supporters have put their money where their mouths are in that he has raised record levels of financing. In fact he has raised more than three-times the financial support of that of McCain who opted for public financing. During the month of September it has been reported that Senator Obama raised $150-million from campaign contributors as contrasted to the $84.1-million made available through public financing to Senator McCain for his entire campaign.
Senator Obama has not only raised record levels of funding but has been spending it too. He has been outspending his opponent by more than three to one in the media. That’s pure muscle. And, both have been putting their funds to work in select, hotly contested markets critical to winning precious electoral votes. In just a one-week period, from 21 to 28 October, the combined political parties aired 2,485 presidential TV ads in Tampa, Florida, according to a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project. That’s a lot of ads. That’s a lot of money!
Do you believe in your brand enough to invest in it with “pull” activities such as advertising? Importantly, do you know who your target is and what behavior you need to stimulate in order to grow sales, market share and profits? In Tampa the candidates and their political parties are looking to sway the still “on-the-fence” undecided voters and, a second constituency, the brand champion foot soldiers they need to knock on doors and get out the vote. Finally, do you know what ROI (return on investment) each of your marketing mix elements and tactics will generate? The ROI factor is ever more important when you are being outspent by the competition and/or category sales are eroding, which many categories are in this worldwide economic downturn.
Perceptions versus Reality – Early in my marketing career I undertook 5-months of sales training. My territory was in Los Angeles selling Folger’s Coffee which, until recently, was owned by the Procter & Gamble Company. My Unit Sales Manager, Vic Davis, who trained me in the science and art of sales(wo)manship, would say, “Perception is reality.” Senator Obama claims the middle class has lost ground during the Republican administration of the past eight years. But economic data reveals that this just isn’t so. But that would be to confuse reality with perceptions. We see what we want to see. We believe what we want or already believe. Don’t confuse us with the facts! To the vast majority of middle-class Americans they perceive themselves to be less well-off today than they were eight years ago. Senator Obama is not alone in creating and capitalizing on perceptions to create a new reality to favor his bid for the presidency. Senator McCain and the Republican Party have been doing this same thing. Both parties are taking statements made by the others out of context and embellishing them to create and/or reinforce a perception that can be downright misleading. They are feeding voters what they already perceive.
We are certainly not encouraging you to be misleading. That would be unethical and inconsistent with whom we, at BDNI, and you are. Instead, it is encouraging you to realize that your brand is much more than the physical attributes of the product. It is a constellation of values that forges a relationship with customers and prospective customers alike. It is not something that regulatory or legal can define. It comes from the experience that you create for customers with your brand. What we are encouraging you to do is go beyond selling products to marketing and managing brands with rich perceptions that define the customers’ reality. This is undertaken with the development of the brand positioning strategy and executed through everything you do.
Before we close out this chapter regarding lessons from political marketing, we would like to make two more observations as we did in the last article. The first is the use of a wide variety of media, particularly by the Democratic Party. They have used the Internet to raise record levels of campaign funding. In addition to TV and radio messages (which they have obviously used heavily) they have also used mobile phones and text messaging. They have made an effort to reach and engage their target where, when and how they would like to be talked to. It’s something for us all to think about in encountering our customers.
A second observation is the need to create and generate passion for your brand. And, passions are running high in this campaign battle. In my Chicagoland area (i.e., Chicago and adjourning counties) nearly 780,000 people have already participated in early voting which ran from 13 – 30 October. Other states are reporting similar results. Additionally it is estimated that voter turnout will top 4-million in the area, up from about 3.3-million from the 2004 election (which was considered a very good turnout). Early voters claim they feel really good about their vote. I don’t ever remember hearing this in previous elections. The American public is impassioned. They feel they have a great stake in this election. Can you say the same about your brand? Or, is you brand another interchangeable product that makes little, or no, difference in the life of your customers? Voters are either “for” or “against” Senator Obama and the Democratic Party. Voters are either “for” or “against” Senator McCain and the Republican Party. There is no middle ground. Strong brands have no middle ground either. One thing they share is that there are, hopefully, more customers “for” them than “against” them.
Following the election the winning party will be swept in with great joy and hope. The losing party will go back to analyze what went wrong and what they will need to do to win in 2012. The losing party will also go back and oppose what the winning party proposes. They will attempt to reposition the winning party as being wrong for America. If this happens we will all be losers regardless of whoever wins the election. It’s time for the collective interest of the American people, and worldwide community, to be put before party politics. Let’s not have business as usual with our country, or our brands. We need real change.