5 Marketing Lessons From The Campaign Trail

Effective politicians are skilled influencers in the highly competitive marketplace of ideas, where voter and consumer decision-making respond to the same subtle rules of persuasion.  If you have a product, service or idea you’d like to share, take heed. Here are five campaign tactics sure to stir more than just electoral hearts.

Tell stories. A compelling political narrative is everything. In the early nineties, Bill Clinton spared no opportunity to remind people where he came from – a little town called Hope, Arkansas – and why that mattered. His message of hope has been a Democratic favourite since time immemorial. Our brains are receptive to stories like Clinton’s because they follow a universal structure, invoke clear and vivid metaphors and illustrate coherent values, lessons and morals. How does your campaign’s story begin? Who are its villains and protagonists?

Make it personal. The intellect raises people’s analytical defenses; feelings disarm those defenses and motivate people to act. “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins,” says Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain. The Truth campaign, launched in November 1998 by the American Legacy Foundation to discourage teenagers from smoking, is a case in point. Unlike data-driven campaigns before it, the Truth campaign succeeded by using anti-authority resentment to get teenagers to stand up and speak out against Big Tobacco. Successful communicators appeal, at least initially, to the heart.

Keep it simple. Torontonians will remember “Stop the gravy train!” as one of the stickiest slogans in recent mayoral history. It’s intuitive. It’s principled. And, best of all, it’s simple. Imagine Ford’s mantra had been “We’re going to eliminate the deficit through a rigorous four-year program of fiscal restraint!” Can you hear those crickets? Studies on memory, emotion and motivation show that the more a message has to be explained, the less likely it is to win support. So strip your message bare, right down to its core.

Frame the issue. According to Seth Godin, “frames are the words and images and interactions that reinforce a bias someone is already feeling.” Politicians are framers par excellence. Consider speeches by President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York during the 2012 Presidential race.

Obama on Romney: “Earlier I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”

Romney on Obama: “You have to wonder what [the President] is thinking: So little time, so much to redistribute.”

The candidates’ barbs may be playful, but their underlying messages are not: Obama doesn’t respect your tax dollars, and Romney is out of touch with the “average American.” Frames matter. Is healthcare an entitlement or a right? What about international trade is more appealing than foreign trade? And what the heck is an “iPod tax? Whether presenting your idea to the public, or defending your product against competitors, it pays to understand and work from peoples’ biases.

Identify the opposition, or invent one. Hands down, the bogeyman of choice among politicians today is global economic uncertainty. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty have made it a campaign centrepiece of past federal and provincial elections. Such a negative message might seem counterintuitive until you consider the ability of a common threat to activate group instincts and inspire collective action. A worthwhile adversary may be exactly what you need to establish a contrast, demonstrate value and rally support for your product, service or idea.