IS THERE a difference between promoting a politician and selling detergent? Of course there is. One of the two cleans dirt better.
Joe McGinnis in 1969 wrote a book on the successful Nixon candidacy of 1968 being handled by Madison Avenue advertising gurus who believed that issues were boring. The candidate has to be sold just like any product — will you buy this one?
So, there is a school of marketing that believes that a political candidate requires the same marketing skills needed for pushing a fast food combo meal or a condo unit. But there are challenges that a brand manager faces in getting market share (or votes) for his candidate (or product).
The shampoo is a fixed product that retains its characteristics until its expiry date. It takes out dandruff without making your hair fall off. It does not suddenly give a wrong answer in an ambush interview (I am not his puppet, even if I look like my strings are being pulled) to make it unstable and no longer the same product in the TV commercial.
A low-cholesterol organic vegetable oil targeting the niche of the fastidious health enthusiasts has a narrow appeal. The candidate needs to connect to the greatest number (the masses) and may need to change brand messages when addressing niche groups, like business. One group may be turned off by an attack on a product no longer on the shelf. Is a rant against incompetence and nonchalance in the handling of the pandemic going to hurt a proxy candidate?
Is the traditional marketing approach for products affected by the ascendancy of online marketing and social media? Selling products from a store is different from engaging the customer.
The digital missionary believes that the world belongs to the “millennials” and that the median age of this country is 23 years old. The youth segment, or the voting population from 18 to 28 years old comprises 70% of eligible voters. The politician is no longer a product on a shelf to be sold to the consumer against the competition but now a unique experience to be posted, shared, and forwarded. Or sniped at and ridiculed.
Can the wizened political handlers sit still in the slide presentations (Can I share my screen?) of a teenage-looking expert promoting a digital approach to campaigning? He promotes using not marketers but bloggers, influencers, and “brand ambassadors,” and letting the messages be defined by the community. (The slide says “crowd-sourcing.”) Digital whiz kids have the nicest graphs, pie-charts, visuals, and data-driven insights. All the campaign committee can do is make a few comments. (Can you flash the last slide again, please?)
The reason the traditional political handlers may balk at the digital approach is its cheekiness and air of certitude — really, you can deliver 15 million votes using this method? Yes, sir, if they will all register and bother to vote. (Are you saying we don’t have to pay them to show up?)
The attributes of the millennial challenges the political exercise. She (There are really more women in the demographic) has a very short attention span (six seconds) before she swipes to the next subject if you don’t engage her. While bloggers present themselves as the new journalists and critics, they are self-appointed and not vetted by any editorial process. Their motives (sometimes their identities too) are unknown. The metric of legitimacy is simply the number of followers, the more the better. And this can also change with the blink of an eye, as when the blog is blocked for promoting fake news.
Already the candidates must be scratching their heads choosing between the old style of selling (and buying) and the experience-sharing approach. The default option of millennials can be seen by their knee-jerk impulse to photograph the food they are eating and posting this for their friends (and followers) to drool over: grilled octopus in Greece is the best. (Those are tentacles, right?) Or a selfie with a special friend with the cryptic but readily understood tag — no-label relationship.
The biggest difference between a product and a candidate is the role of the consumer. In traditional marketing, the consumer has to pay to consume a product. In politics, the seller and buyer can switch roles. And it’s not always clear who bought in or sold out.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda