What Brands Can Learn From Politics

As the 2012 political season heats up (e.g., Etch A Sketch-Gate), the mainstream marketing community is doing its best to ignore—or more accurately, look down its nose at—the advertising wars between political candidates. This is the usual pattern: Only late in the game, during the most visible presidential battles, do “the experts” weigh in, often with profoundly uninformed or dismissive opinions of the strategic art and science of political persuasion.

I was guilty of this for half my career. Then I met my political research partner, Bernard Whitman, and “the lights came on.”  

Back to the core principle we brand folks ignore, at our peril: We often spend half our lives and budgets, year in and year out, trying to persuade the unpersuadable. The quantitative research we conduct on the political model for brands consistently demonstrates that 30-70 percent of brands’ target consumers will never buy what they’re selling....never, ever, period. That’s 30-70 percent of your budget down the drain, year after year. 

Mainstream marketers are almost bred to deny this notion, yet political strategists embrace the power and liberation they find in identifying and “letting go of the opposition.” They don’t spend money trying to convert the unconvertible and, instead, focus their attention and dollars on caring for their “base” and overinvesting where the real action is: the swing, or the persuadables whose vote you can earn, and the consumers you can convert into valuable base customers. Imagine if you could operate this way, investing only where the real growth is, ignoring your opposition, stealing share from your competition, and gaining votes for your brand more productively and efficiently.

Now, don’t get me wrong: There is one target that both politicos and brand marketers can agree on, and that is the base. That’s what loyalty and frequent flier programs are all about.  

So if you already understand the concept of your base, imagine being just as secure in your investment against the swing, while having the courage to let go of your opposition. If this is starting to make sense, you will start to see exciting patterns emerge through the fog of 2012’s political war this year...patterns with more relevance to your world than you ever thought possible. 

Tom Cotton is a cofounder and partner in Protagonist, a marketing and advertising agency. He leads the agency’s political modeling joint venture, ExactCast, with Bernard Whitman, founder and president of Whitman Insight Strategies.   

[Image: Flickr user Tim Wilson]

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