I very much doubt there is a marketer in North America who has not attended a presentation by someone who worked on the first Obama campaign. To be sure, it is a compelling case study and a warm tale of the power of message over whatever that was the McCain campaign was doing.
I think the second Obama campaign has a lot more to offer in terms of insight, inspiration and figuring out what to do next, and this book, by Canadian ad veteran, Clive Veroni is a very good place to start picking that apart.
This is a very readable book with plenty of examples from beyond the Obama campaign, including a few from Canadian politics and brands. It covers a lot of ground in a very short space and leaves brand marketers with 9 things to ponder.
1. It’s okay, it’s even healthy to piss some people off
Your Hand-Wringers are going to hate this, but one thing political strategists understand is this: “Whether marketers like it or not, they will have to abandon the safety of the high ground and engage with people face to face, some of whom won’t like them. Smart marketers will understand that using the anger of some will allow them to win the support of others.” To do anything else is to dig yourself a giant hole of mediocrity.
2. Passion makes or breaks your brand
Politicians understand that sentiment is driven at the passionate edges of the market, not the agreeable middle. New Coke, Tropicana’s package overhaul and Gap’s logo redesign are examples of the misery that follows when brands piss off the wrong people. Obama’s success is driven not by the folks in the middle of his support base (who are important) but by the ardent supporters at the edges of his market. The same goes for Stephen Harper, who is very good at ignoring the haters, being kind to the middle and actively engaging the ideologues at the outer edges.
3. You need your geeks
If you have been hiding under your desk hoping this Big Data Thing is going away, you need to put on your big boy pants and deal with it. Obama may have crushed it the first time on the strength of messaging, but data won the day in 2012. Veroni does an outstanding job of unpacking the data-driven approach to the campaign and the insanely efficient ways they were able to slice, dice and julienne insights to galvanize the edges. You and I call it Facebook but for the campaign, it was the fast track for reaching undecided voters who were overwhelmed by information. Not a cat video in sight.
4. Fire your market researchers
“The end of mass marketing as we know is signaling the embarrassing retreat of two of the biggest actors in the world of mass communication: the pollster and the market researcher.” You may recall that the polls had Romney out in front in all the key electoral districts right up until he wasn’t, which is mostly because he never was and the Obama camp knew it. This is the difference between having lots of data (research) and knowing what it means (analysis). Happily, the people who figured this out for Obama don’t have much to do for the next few years and brand marketers like us can put them to work on our stuff. It should be on your to do list.
5. Stop answering questions and start asking them
Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans if they were better off after four years of Jimmy Carter in the White House. Obama asked them who they trusted to manage the economy. When consumers answer questions around trust, values and well-being, whether about candidates or fruit juice, they tip not only into a preference for one brand, but into a lack of support for the others. Contrast this to our old friend the Positioning Statement, which works hard to provide an answer to a question marketers assume (and hope) someone out there is actually asking. I think I may frame this line: “A powerful ballot question, one that connects deeply with its audience and moves them to think or do something different, resides within the magic triangle bordered by believability, credibility and humanity.”
6. Luck is good. Knowing what to do with it is better
This book spends a lot of time talking about the value of planning and scenario strategies, which is something most marketers do incredibly badly, if they bother at all. This lack of planning leads to ham-fisted attempts to jump on memes, issues and events which generally have little impact but can create horrible blow-back if you screw it up. Veroni asserts that “hard work, planning and strategizing make serendipity possible.” I disagree. Serendipity is always possible; knowing how to exploit it properly is why we need to plan. But I would go one better and suggest that we also need to know what success looks like.
I could not be more tired of the “you can still dunk in the dark” thing Oreo pulled off at the Super Bowl a few years ago. Yes they were clever; yes they made people smile enough to share the tweet; yes, they carried the day if brand chutzpah was the key metric but I suggest that the only people who really found this interesting the next morning were the marketers. Oreo is a beautifully managed brand that is growing its equity exponentially but even they admit they can’t tie revenue to the tweet, which is why we need to have some realistic success criteria around the value of Carpe Twitter.
7. Hire Differently
In an era where brands don’t control time or message, and speed is the new currency, success belongs to those who can take their insights and deploy messages, offers and questions into the market very quickly. Good political campaigns are able to pull together the right people and have them coalesce very quickly to come up with new ideas. This works, in my view, because it’s short-term, high-potential work which is very personal and driven by a vision. Marketing departments need to figure out how to make this scale. We have discussed in this space the deplorable recruiting environment in most marketing departments, and I think Bethany is going to have a really hard time with Veroni’s notion of what to do about it. “It begins with hiring more people who can demonstrate non-linear thinking, who have genuine empathy, and who possess narrative skill. If corporations want to develop more creative solutions to business problems, if they want people who see things in a new light and who find patterns in the data that no one has spotted before, they might want to look beyond business schools.” If you work in an agency, this should sound like a pretty standard job description (and a sweet opportunity).
8. Challenge Comfortable Assumptions
One of the things that has always baffled me about BP’s response to the gulf oil spill is how surprised they seemed about the whole thing. Surely a company smart enough to drill something as complicated as a deep water oil well can think through the endless list of stuff that can go horribly wrong, and fill the other side of the page with more than a clever doodle of a horse. Turns out that where companies even bother to do serious scenario planning, they often skate through the whole process on a series of assumptions based on nothing more than how inconvenient it would be if the world were not as they hope it is. Marketers may not have much to do with planning around currency crises or the price of potash, but we should be very careful about assuming the future is a thing we can predict and focus instead on the worldview that may make it difficult for us to respond.
9. Get off your arse and find a purpose
Everyone form Deepak Chopra to Simon Sinek has been telling you to figure out what your brand means. What it stands for. Why it exists. And you haven’t done a thing about it, have you? Veroni adds his voice to this call and trots out the usual suspects (Apple, Google, Facebook) but he nicely takes the rest of us to task over our mission and vision statements: “… a succession of clichés inside banalities inside platitudes … cobbled together by senior management during a one-day offsite at a golf resort, led by an overly enthusiastic facilitator. They are far removed from the day-to-day reality of the work people do.” Nailed it.
There is a lot more in this book, most of it not new but most of it well worth keeping in mind as we ponder the murky future. I could have lived without a few of the meandering agency war stories toward the end, and I would have enjoyed more visuals in this book. Many of the examples would, I think, have been more resonant and a bit more fun with photos. Overall, though, a great read.
Interesting Things I Found This Week
If you have been dismissing Pinterest as the land of crochet patterns and photos of soup, this post by Michael Semer might change your mind about its B2B possibilities.
The number of companies using two or more agencies is down 13% since 2009. This post from Marketing Profs takes a visual look at the trend.
BizMarketer is Elizabeth Williams
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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