Of Political Campaigns, Candidates and Marketing

Most people readily recall Barack Obama winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, but how many know he was the 2012 Ad Age Best Marketer of the Year? Obama shaped his campaign using issues identified in social media forums. He was able to persuade and build power by listening to base constituents—his target audience.

Marketing, too, relies upon persuasion. American political campaigns use marketing tools to build strategies, researching voter sentiments and transforming them into political insights. Candidates are “brands”— positioned with messages that appeal to targeted market segments.

Effective brand managers listen to customers first, then work backward to create offerings that satisfy identified needs. Savvy politicians understand this principle. Like brands, they develop a convincing story that secures voter buy-in. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen insists that marketing should not focus on the product, but on the jobs the product performs. Likewise, political campaigns should focus not on personality, but on issues the candidate will solve.

Yet there are substantial differences between marketing products and political candidates.

  • It’s easier to try out products before buying, lessening the perceived risks. There’s no trial size candidate – once you vote for them, you’re stuck with them.
  • Products can change to match customer preferences, but candidates cannot easily reflect voter preferences on every issue. If a candidate holds a stance contrary to the target audience’s views, it can be hard to mask. Voters assess candidates’ honesty and authenticity, so reasoned honesty is often
  • Different from new and improved products, consumers do not like surprises from candidates. Voters seek consistency, not candidate re-branding. A candidate’s voting record, media comments and personal life will be investigated for flip-flopping—seen as hypocrisy and betrayal.
  • Voters are less likely to forgive a candidate than to forgive a product, possibly because of the fundamental attribution error—the tendency to place unwarranted emphasis on personality or internal characteristics when explaining someone else’s behavior rather than considering external factors. Extenuating circumstances may play a larger behavior-shaping role, but they are often ignored.

Recent decades have witnessed sweeping changes in voter behavior and campaign approaches. Today, voters are less likely to vote along party lines or affiliate themselves with a party. Like consumers who are typically more store-loyal than brand-loyal, voters are more candidate-loyal than party-loyal.

The 1960’s Kennedy-Nixon televised debates initiated a mass media campaign era. Campaign slogans are short, catchy and reflect average electorate political tastes. Candidates use network debates, photo ops and local campaign stumps, but enhance them with targeted interactive digital media campaigns, using data to segment interest groups.

The move toward micromarketing—in which messages target one potential voter— reflects a marketing mega-trend. The internet and social media enable mass customization—custom tailoring products and political campaigns to individuals’ needs, on an industrial scale. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neil famously quipped, “All politics is local.” It’s hard to get more local than individualized campaign messages!

While marketing products and promoting candidates have similarities and differences, marketing tools will always be important to elections. How candidates leverage voter insight for political strategy will continue evolving with increasingly sophisticated technologies. Candidates who embrace micro-marketing and micro-campaigning opportunities will be most equipped to prevail.

E. Scott Lathrop