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Marketing lessons from the US election

The polls open in a few minutes, and unlike pundits that wait until after the polls have closed, I thought I'd do the opposite. It's obvious that this is the most talked about election in the history of the world, and I think there are some lessons for every marketer, regardless of nationality or political leanings.

It turns out that one way you learn about marketing is by analyzing it. (The other way is to do it). Yet people hate analyzing three really useful but emotional examples of marketing that matters: politics, organized religion and their own organizations. I figure we can start here, with the easiest of the three.

This is a long post. Fine with me if you skip it and just go vote instead.

Here goes:

Stories really matter.
More than a billion dollars spent, two 'products' that have very different features, and yet, when people look back at the election they will remember mavericky winking. You can say that's trivial. I'll say that it's human nature. Your product doesn't have features that are more important than the 'features' being discussed in this election, yet, like most marketers, you're obsessed with them. Forget it. The story is what people respond to.

Mainstream media isn't powerful because we have no other choices (see below). It's powerful because they're still really good at writing and spreading stories, stories we listen to and stories we believe.

Trend2youtbue TV is over. If people are interested, they'll watch. On their time (or their boss's time). They'll watch online, and spread the idea. You can't email a TV commercial to a friend, but you can definitely spread a YouTube video. The cycle of ads got shorter and shorter, and the most important ads were made for the web, not for TV. Your challenge isn't to scrape up enough money to buy TV time. Your challenge is to make video interesting enough that we'll choose to watch it and choose to share it.

Permission matters (though selfish marketers still burn it). The Republican party has a long tradition of smart direct mail tactics. Over the years, they've used them to aggressively outfundraise and outcampaign the Democrats. In this election cycle, smart marketers at the Obama campaign toned down the spam and turned up the permission. They worked relentlessly to build a list, and they took care of the list. They used metrics to track open rates and (at least until the end) appeared to avoid burning out the list with constant fundraising. Anticipated, personal and relevant messages will always outperform spam. Regardless of how it is delivered.

Marketing is tribal. This one, for obvious reasons, fascinated me this cycle.

Karl Rove and others before him were known for cultivating the 'base'. This was shorthand for a tribe of people with shared interests and vision (it included a number of conservatives and evangelicals). George W. Bush was able to get elected twice by embracing the base, by connecting them, by being one of them.

John McCain had a dilemma. He didn't particularly like the base nor did they like him. His initial strategy was not to lead this existing tribe, but to weave a new tribe. The idea was that independents and some Democrats, together with the traditional pre-Reagan core of the Republican party, would weave together a new centrist base.

Barack Obama also had a challenge. He knew that the traditional base for Democratic candidates wouldn't be sufficient to get him elected (it had failed John Kerry). So he too set out to weave a new tribe, a tribe that included progressives, the center, younger religious voters, weary veterans, internationalists, Nobel prize winners, black voters and others.

Building a new tribe (in marketing and in politics) is time consuming and risky and expensive. Both set out to do this.

Then, McCain made a momentous decision. He chose Sarah Palin, and did it for one huge reason: to embrace the Rove/Bush 'base'. To lead a tribe that was already there, but not yet his. He was hoping for a side effect, which was to attract Hillary Clinton's tribe, one that in that moment, was also leaderless.

Seen through the lens of tribes and marketing, this is a fascinating and risky event. Are people willing to suspend disbelief or suspicion and embrace a leader in order to maintain the energy of their tribe?

If it had worked, it would have been a master stroke. He would have solidified his base, grabbed key constituencies of Clinton supporters in swing states and wooed the center as well. Three tribes in one pick.

In McCain's case, it failed. His choice cost him the economically-concerned middle (which went to Obama's carefully woven tribe). And it clearly cost him the mostly female Clinton tribe. Yes, he energized the conservative base, but he lost the election. If he had chosen Mike Huckabee, one could wonder what would have happened. Would this less polarizing figure been able to collect a bigger tribe for him?

This is a real question for every marketer with an idea to sell. Do you find an existing tribe (Harley drivers, Manolo shoe buyers, frequent high-end restaurant diners) and try to co-opt them? Or do you try the more expensive and risky effort of building a brand new tribe? The good news is that if you succeed, you get a lot for your efforts. The bad news is that you're likely to fail.

Motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted. The unheralded success factor of Obama's campaign is the get out the vote effort. Every marketer can learn from this. It's easier (far easier) to motivate the slightly motivated than it is to argue with those that either ignore you or are predisposed to not like you.

Attack ads don't always work. There's a reason most product marketers don't use attack ads. All they do is suppress sales of your opponent, they don't help you. Since TV ads began, voter turnout has progressively decreased. That's because the goal of attack ads is to keep your opponent's voters from showing up. Both sides work to whittle down the other. In a winner-take-all game like a political election, this strategy is fine if it works.

So why didn't the ads work this time?

The tribe that Obama built identified with him. Attacking him was like attacking them. They took it personally, and their outrage led to more donations and bigger turnout. This is the lucky situation Apple finds itself in as well. Attacking an Apple product is like attacking an Apple user.

We get what we deserve. The lesson that society should take away about all marketing is a simple one. When you buy a product, you're also buying the marketing. Buy something from a phone telemarketer, you get more phone telemarketers, guaranteed. Buy a gas guzzler and they'll build more. Marketers are simple people... they make what sells. Our culture has purchased (and voted) itself into the place we are today.

Did I mention you should vote?

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