BATTLEGROUNDS: 5 things politics can teach marketing

21st June 2015

To be human is to be political. ‘Politics’, of course, are not negative – despite our culture’s insistence on bashing politicians for every conceivable ill. Politics are, in a most general sense, simply the way people collaborate and do things, together.

No surprise then, that the strategies employed by politicians to persuade citizens to think and act in certain ways are also strategies useful for us in marketing, as we build brands.

I find three practices of politics helpful to challenge me in the way I think about growing brands. They bring me to 5 principles (jump to the end of this post, if you can’t wait). It’s worth acknowledging that most of this thinking arises from American politics. The prevailing winds of marketing, no less than our Irish weather patterns, blow from the south west. America’s eastern seaboard, it seems, will not be ignored.

A. Focus on the swing states. 

The lion’s share (and I mean a particularly large lion) of any political campaign’s investment goes into what Americans call ‘battleground states’ – those places where a candidate has a reasonable chance to either win or lose. And that’s the point. Politics focuses its energy on converting those people most open to conversion, in those places where a swing in a candidate’s favour is plausible. There is little point in Hillary Clinton investing in Wyoming or New Mexico. It just ain’t going to happen. Nor does it make sense to convert the converted (e.g. invest in New York). To do so is not just mathematically impossible, it’s also a waste of precious funds. Politics tells us that the converted should be employed as evangelists – to mobilise, and go fight it out in battleground states, and to advocate for what they believe in. In short, loyal consumers are an asset to be activated, not a brethren to worship. This idea, in quite different iterations, was harnessed by the Yes Campaign in our recent Marriage Equality referendum, and (in a more pedantic manner) by Apple.

B. Keep everyone in the boat.  

Adversarial politics is informed by polar opposites. Being for or against stuff; being for us or agin us. From this ethos, George W. Bush created his ‘axis of evil’, and made distinction between ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’. (Unhelpful in the extreme, I might add).

The Clintonites of the 1990s had seen it differently, and called it ‘triangulation’. Triangulation understands that any population is a broad church, and seeks to reframe the choices on offer. For example, social welfare is cast not simply a discussion about entitlements, but also responsibilities (to seek a job, to contribute to the community, etc.). Triangulation offers choice around an issue – it does not adopt a take it or leave it stance. With Coke Life (the green one) the Red Monster of Atlanta seeks to triangulate the soft drinks conversation. McDonald’s do something similar – talking to moderation (salads) and quasi-connoisseurship (coffee) as well as indulgence. Triangulation sees life as a continuum and not as a binary decision. When employed with nous, it becomes harder to say No and easier to justify Yes.

C. Campaign in poetry, govern in prose. 

This axiom of the political theatre is one of my favourites, because it is so true and so enduring. Campaigning (think of this as introducing yourself or your brand, in any medium) is an act of high-minded sonnets. We always wish to believe the very best. From here comes calls to land on the moon (JFK 1960), to build a bridge to the 21st century (Clinton 1996) and an affirmation for the ages that yes, we can (Obama 2008).

As it happened, the moon landing was less important than advertised, that bridge was little more than a pontoon and, in large part, no, we couldn’t. 

But here’s the thing – we never expected these things to be true. Ever! The poetry of a political campaign, like any charm offensive, is a battle of tone and not content. In political campaigns, the suitor allows us first to see her heart, not her CV.

In brand building, we obsess about ‘reasons to believe’ and tend to cram them into advertising, sometimes with a little too much gusto. But things that are important (those credentials) are not necessarily interesting. Consumers, no less than voters, need the poetry in order to make a wise choice, rather than simply a rational one.

So, let me have a go at summarising the wisdom of politicking for those of us in marketing:

1. Spend money converting those easy to convert 

2. Figure out how to mobilise loyal consumers to go fight for your brand

3. Frame the choices your consumers make with the greatest care

4. Offer significant choices within every big brand

5. Bring consumers to your brand with emotion. Keep ’em there with function. 

And that’s the end of this political broadcast. Good night.

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