How Marketing a Presidential Candidate Compares to Marketing a Product
Post by Carol Stuckey, who teaches Services Marketing and Management Strategies and Digital Marketing: Social Media and Online Strategies.
Running a successful presidential campaign is an enormous and complex task, perhaps best left to campaign consultants. But while there are many differences between marketing a candidate and marketing a product, there are also many parallels. And as a student and teacher of marketing, I find that it is sometimes fun to point those out.
A product vs. a politician
Presidential campaigns don’t always have control of the message. Special interest groups, campaign staff, and even family members can put forth content that may not be entirely “on message” and can be damaging or distracting. Vice President Joe Biden’s “back in chains” remark is an example of a statement that diverted attention away from President Obama’s campaign message for a period of time.
Most candidates have prior voting records and careers in the private or public sector available for scrutiny. Candidates occasionally change their position on issues over the years and have to explain those changes.
In contrast, products rarely have a complicated history or extensive “baggage” to overcome.
Political campaigns may excel over product marketing campaigns in their use of data. Campaigns rely heavily on polling information to craft a compelling message. Drawing customer insights from data is important in the world of product marketing, yet it can be difficult for companies to do. Often businesses craft value propositions based on gut feelings, rather than carefully collected data.
Big differences aside, some of the same fundamentals of marketing apply in staging a successful political campaign. This video on market disruptions that I use in my marketing classes is a favorite among students. In it, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen encourages marketers to ask themselves, “What job is the customer hiring your product to do?” Applying this concept to the election, you’d ask, “What job are Americans hiring the president to do?”
Cutting through the clutter
We know from recent Gallup polls that by far the most important election issue is the economy. Other issues such as healthcare, education, and immigration barely register in comparison. Of course, when you segment the population by age, gender, race, or income, you’ll see differences in the importance of the issues and, thus, which candidates are supported by various demographic groups.
The same strategy employed in marketing a product should apply to marketing a candidate: figure out segments of the “market” that are winnable and communicate a compelling and tailored message to that audience about why your product (i.e., candidate) is better than the alternatives. Still, at the end of the day, the winning candidate needs to have a compelling story to tell regarding the economy.
Tap into emotions
Emotional appeals in product marketing can be powerful. In Gerard Tellis’ book, Effective Advertising: Understanding When, How, and Why Advertising Works, he discusses how emotional appeals are more effective in persuading customers than appeals based on logical arguments or endorsements because emotional appeals have an easier time cutting through the clutter.
In presidential elections, there is a lot of clutter for voters to sift through: a multitude of issues and varying proposals for addressing them. Readers might recall the effective use of fear employed by George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. A commercial depicting a revolving prison door for criminals provided a powerful knockout punch rarely seen in politics.
In 2011, Chrysler ran this television ad for its Chrysler 200. The ad evokes a feeling of patriotism associated with the rebuilding of Detroit and was considered one of the most effective ads of the year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, research on Chrysler models on Edmunds.com jumped 328 percent after the ad appeared. And Chrysler sold three times as many Chrysler 200s than its predecessor model, the Sebring, in the same time period the previous year.
Some of those same tactics can be employed to “sell” a candidate. You could imagine either campaign using an emotional, patriotic appeal built on specific American stories to propel their campaign forward. We haven’t seen that thus far. However, in this race, neither candidate seems to be doing a particularly effective job with emotional appeals.
Connecting with voters is especially important for Romney, who, according to polls, lacks the charisma and likability of Obama. There was an opening for Romney when President Obama said, “If you own a small business, you didn’t build that.” Republicans had a short-lived social media campaign “Built by Us” that encouraged small business owners to tell their stories and put a sign in the window of their businesses.
Unfortunately, the effort lacked the organization to make it really take off. You could imagine a series of powerful Romney television ads and a social media campaign evoking the emotions of the Chrysler ad with small business owners telling their stories of how they built their business and how they and their employees are hurting in this economy.
Four years ago, President Obama’s successful campaign centered on the emotional themes of hope and change. The 2012 Democratic convention is unlikely to re-create the electricity of 2008. But perhaps it can succeed in connecting on an emotional level. The race is close. Each side needs to find a way to make their message resonate.