GOP presidential candidate and endlessly self-described businessman Herman Cain has risen from obscurity to–Drudge Report siren!–Republican frontrunner, passing even Barack Obama in the latest Rasmussen shock poll. What’s the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO’s secret sauce? Three ingredients: 9-9-9, Cain’s radical tax plan that calls for a 9% flat business, individual, and national sales tax.
The 9-9-9 plan has whet the appetites of voters hungry for sweet middle class relief, even though critics say it’ll likely amount to a tax hike for the poor and a tax cut for the wealthy. The real innovation here is in the marketing. Cain, who rose through the ranks at Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, and Burger King to become Godfather’s chief exec, knows how to sell a product, and he’s selling his tax plan the same way he would hawk Triple Whopper value meals to lower-middle-class-income families of four. Like it or not, it’s a savvy way to pitch a fast-food nation in a double-dip recession.
“It’s all about the simplicity of the message, the blinding clarity, the repetition,” says Chad Caufield (left), managing partner at Boston ad agency MMB and one of the brains behind Subway’s addictive $5 footlong campaign. “When we came out with the $5 footlong and declared the simplicity of the ‘5,’ Domino’s followed suit [with the 5-5-5 deal], Pizza Hut certainly picked it up, along with Arby’s, Friendly’s, and any number of folks who have gone with the singular number. Certainly if you look at what Cain is doing with 9-9-9, it’s beyond a sound bite: It’s going for that blinding clarity. I really do think it’s that–excuse my French–no bullshit simplicity and clarity.”
Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is the legislative equivalent of Subway’s $5 footlong campaign or Domino’s 5-5-5 deal. In fact, a slew of Godfather’s Pizza outlets in Illinois are already running a “9-9-9 deal,” according to one company operations director. So it’s no surprise that when asked about 9-9-9 at a recent debate, GOP candidate Jon Huntsman said, “I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it.”
“It takes it to another level when you repeat it over and over and over again like he has in the debates,” says Caufield. “If you swung a dead cat and hit ten people, if they know anything they’ll be able to tell you about Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. And love it or hate, like the [Subway] jingle, it’s certainly memorable. Because all we do is ‘$5, $5 dollar footlong.’ Say it over and over again. It’s almost: How many times can we fit it into a 30 second song?”
Cain’s marketing success might be attributed to his use of 9’s. According to a study by Robert Schindler, a marketing professor at Rutgers School of Business, prices with 9-ending figures can have a significant impact on sales. “It’s always been associated with people trying to communicate their prices are low or discounted,” Schindler tells Fast Company. “In other words, $29.99 seems like a lot more than a penny less than $30. There have been a number of studies that have tested that [theory], although it’s not exactly understood why. I think it’s a first-impression effect.”
“The 9-ending is very widely believed in retail,” he continues. “[Cain’s] use of 9-9-9, rather than say, 10-10-10, it just feels like less–and 9-9-9 just rolls off your tongue easily. Plus, there are the connotations of 9-ending prices: [Consumers] are more likely to guess [something] is on sale when it has a 9-ending. It communicates ‘discount’ to people.”
That’s especially useful for Cain, who is trying to sell 9-9-9 as a low-cost plan that will cut taxes. “He’s using the meaning of the 9’s here, and firing them out,” Schindler says.
Asked whether Cain’s 9-9-9 plan might be inspired by his background in fast food and retail, Schindler said, “It’s likely, isn’t it?”
Requests to Cain’s campaign for comment were not immediately returned. But in case there’s any question about whether his fast food background inspired the policy, consider that at least one Godfather’s Pizza outlet in Indiana had already offered a “9-9-9 deal” before Cain launched the policy. “We have a ‘9-9-9 deal.’ It’s one of our deals that’s always been there,” says the Indiana branch’s manager, who was not familiar with Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. “It’s the cheesy-pepperoni pizza for $9.99.”
Says MMB’s Caufield, “Where he comes from in terms of his business background, you would think it was an absolute application of everything he’s learned in terms of talking to consumers. Even the way he talks–it’s very different than Mitt Romney–he uses shorter-clip phrases, whereas Mitt speaks more like someone with a background in investment banking and private equity.”
There’s a lesson here for other politicians: Creating a plan that resonates with the public takes much more than crafting the right legislation. And as the number of generically named PACs (“Americans for Prosperity”) and tax plans (“Roadmap for America’s Future”) continues to grow, Cain’s successful marketing of 9-9-9 is another indication that voters have shifted back to looking for concrete, catchy messaging instead of abstract, nuanced ideals. See: Obama’s “change” and “hope” policies that were so captivating in the last election. Or contrast the success of Cain’s message (not, necessarily, the plan itself) with Mitt Romney’s tougher-to-digest, 59-point plan, entitled “Believe in America.”
“Cain has done what no one else has: When you see 9-9-9, it’s immediately: Cain. You can’t or think of anyone else,” Caufield says. “With ‘Roadmap for the Future’ or any other fill-in-the-blank generic headline, that’s not what people are going to remember. And [Romney’s] 59 points? I’m only going to get past three points and then move on.”
He adds, “People are going to remember Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, even if they don’t know what it is or what the three 9’s stand for.”
If only the plan came with a toy prize.
[Top image, Flickr user Gage Skidmore]