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January 15, 2008
Primary Lessons, And Secondary Ones Too

I’m a news junkie, so the Presidential primary and caucus results in Iowa, Wyoming and New Hampshire, along with the attendant message adjustments, are fascinating to me.

In a Presidential campaign, politics is theater. It’s entertainment. And above all else, it’s marketing. Can the ad industry learn anything by watching this $1 billion spectacle? I think so. As of January 15th, here’s what I’m learning:

A loved upstart brand can beat an unloved brand with deep pockets. Campaign money goes to advertising, but also to staff, supplies, phones, etc. They burn money fast, long before the first primary or caucus takes place. That’s a huge gamble with no way to predicting ROI. Already, we’ve seen some campaigns like McCain’s and Huckabee’s win without the most cash.

People want something to believe in. Americans are an optimistic bunch at their core—we still believe that our government can work the way Schoolhouse Rock said it could. Which is why so many deeply cynical, apathetic voters are moved by Obama’s message.

If you can’t close the sale, no sales pitch, emotional or rational, will help you. There is a difference, though: In politics, you only have to make a sale once or twice—at a primary or general election. On the night of the Iowa caucus, Obama and Huckabee made sure their supporters showed up. Otherwise, they’d have been screwed.

Consumers don’t like being told what to do. When Clinton was considered inevitable, Obama won. Then Obama was considered inevitable, and Clinton won.

Focus groups and polls can’t tell you everything you need to know. In a campaign, every word and phrase in every speech and ad is dissected and analyzed to determine its relative appeal. But as we saw in New Hampshire, the people will do what they want to do.

Chuck Norris has very, very, white teeth.

Consultants and PR gurus don’t know everything. Mitt Romney was the CEO of a management consulting firm. Hillary Clinton’s top adviser is the CEO of a worldwide PR firm. But the two candidates have had to change and retool their campaigns numerous times, perhaps due to all the overanalysis and calculation.

Consumer-generated content can sometimes make or break you. I can sum that up in one word: “Macaca.” George Allen was supposed to be a Presidential contender this year, but he insulted a college student with a camcorder, and the whole world found out about it.

Style beats substance—much of the time. If that wasn’t the case, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson would’ve had a chance.

Sometimes, just one word can summarize an entire brand. “Change.” “Hope.” “Strength.” “Experience.” Could your client sum up its brand in one word?

Timing is everything when launching a new brand. Would Barack Obama be better in 12 years? Was John McCain better 8 years ago? The market has a way of deciding when the time is right to launch a product.

Make an emotional connection. All candidates have position papers, platforms, and websites where you can delve into what a candidate believes and what he/she wants to do. But people respond to emotion—swirling rhetoric, imagery, and even the occasional tear.

Get an integrated campaign. Candidates blow a lot of money on TV, but they also spend for radio, papers, websites and emails, robocalls, and very targeted direct mail. It all works together. Of course, inundating your audience with too much advertising will turn them off.

A small test market won’t prove success or failure. Watch as the people who didn’t do well in Iowa and NH go on to advocate a wide-open, national one-day primary. For the people who won, the system works just fine. We’ve seen different results in the two test markets. Rudy Giuliani isn’t test marketing; he wants a national roll-out. Will it work?

Respond to customer concerns quickly and effectively. One big mistake and a campaign can blow out faster than a Firestone tire on a Ford Explorer. Brands run the same risk when they make missteps.

Predictions aren’t worth much. We can make long-term plans for our brands, but situations change. A month from now, the Presidential race could look radically different. Similarly, agencies and marketers can’t predict the future of our industry or cultural trends. I’ll offer my Friendster profile as proof of that one.

It’s easy to get sick of all the political talk if it doesn’t interest you. But consumers vote every day with their pocketbooks. Make sure you’ve got the right message you need to keep winning the races.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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