Marketing Mitt

Bill Lee, president of the Customer Reference Forum, Executive Director of the Summit on Customer Engagement, and author of The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset (HBR Press, June 2012) has written an interesting article for Harvard Business Review’s blog on The Marketing of a President.

Partisanship Aside…

Bill,  a Republican who has worked in a presidential campaign as well as the George H.W. Bush Administration, offers critiques to his own party, although he holds that much of this can also be applied equally to the Democratic Party as well.

As an independent myself, I greatly appreciate Bill’s willingness to step outside the political box and offer an objective perspective. To balance his criticisms of the Republican marketing tactics, I will inject some criticisms of the Democratic tactics.

In short: Bill observes that if neither candidate really connects with voters or truly inspire them,  that’s a problem for the party brand. Taking a step back, he also points out that the way that we traditionally market businesses is broken. Applying this to politics,  Bill asks two core questions:

  • How referable are your candidates for president? “By which I mean, how likely are their followers to passionately advocate for them to their family, friends, neighbors, and peers?”
  • How inspiring are their ideas? “How much do they move their followers? Can their followers even really say what their core ideas are?”

Following the Wrong Business Model

Top Down Marketing: Bill notes that the model for selecting a candidate is heavily weighted towards a relatively small number of huge donors who don’t understand or share the interests of ordinary voters but control the ideas the party generates. The results:

And what has this model delivered? After hundreds of millions of dollars spent, and interminable months campaigning against a clearly vulnerable incumbent president presiding over a persistently weak economy, the best we can say is that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are in a dead heat. We can’t say that Romney has cultivated a growing number of passionate and inspired citizen advocates for his candidacy and its ideas. And in the final three weeks, his success will depend on some dispiriting, high-risk combination of the final debate performance, the hopes of exploiting some possible “October surprise” (and avoiding one of his own), and most of all, negative ads.

Voice of the Institution: I have referred to this as the Voice of the Institution, as opposed to the Voice of the Customer. It’s Company Centricity, vs. Customer Centricity. Bill rightly faults the Republican model for this. They unabashedly represent the interests of the 1%, and attempt to tie this to the interests of the average voter by making the old, economically discredited supply side claim that wealth “trickles down.” The term “job creators” is the latest reincarnation of this disproven construct.

Disconnected Voice: Democratic marketing can make the same mistake of sounding disconnected from the interests of the common person when discussing government initiatives to help those who are struggling economically. To the average employed citizen, this raises the specter of increased taxation, and the notion that his/her meager, hard earned wealth will be confiscated to help others. While the average voter may not want to have his/her pocket picked to support the wealthy, the notion of an inefficient and corrupt government siphoning  off his or her money to support pet projects whose benefits do not accrue to him/her is also unpalatable.

Engaging the Consumer With the Appeal to Individual Initiative: The marketing challenge of either party is to show how the tax policies benefit the taxpayers themselves. I believe that the general strength of the Republican Party in national elections, despite their outmoded ideas, derives from the appeal to the notion of individual initiative and financial independence. The voting public would like to believe that they can make it on their own given the opportunity to do so, and, further, experience upward mobility. This is the core appeal of the Republican brand, even if their policies achieve the opposite.

The Democratic Positioning Dilemma:  Democrats have tried to challenge the Republican appeal to individual initiative by pointing to the dry economic facts and figures that show that Republican policies are actually antithetical to economic improvement. The main problem with that approach is that it is intellectual, rather than heartfelt. It is a defensive strategy, and it is more difficult to prove a negative because this is itself an abstract argument.

The problem that the Democratic Party needs to solve is how to either coopt the Republican appeal to individual initiative, and appropriate the brand for themselves (which is unlikely), or create an economic brand that captivates the voting public with an appeal to their core values and beliefs. Leaving social issues aside, what argument can the Democrats make that can overcome the conceptual bias that the public has that they do not create, but redistribute wealth? Although the economy tends to thrive more under Democratic administrations, it’s a hard case to make for one very important reason: the Republican economic brand is deeply instilled.

There’s a Better Way to Pick the Nation’s Leader

Create An Advocacy Model: Bill’s observation is that progressive businesses are increasingly abandoning the old marketing model that uses hired professionals to market and sell to consumers, and are beginning to build organizations that depend on customer advocates for their growth and success. Contrasting that approach to the Republican Convention in Tampa, he asks where the Republican citizen advocates who could appeal to the voters were:

What we saw was a parade of entrepreneur after entrepreneur trying to inspire voters with their stories of how they took a risk, built their business and accepted responsibility. What the vast majority of voters — who have no desire to start a business — got was a lecture from people they don’t relate to.

Where was an average worker Republican who is thriving in the new job he got as a result of first-rate training from a community college, built with the help of Republican-led initiatives? Where was a Republican soccer mom whose kids are thriving after moving from a hopelessly broken, politically fractured school system to a vibrant charter school, made possible by Republican reforms?

Best practicesinclude businesses like and SAS Canada, who are moving toward a new marketing model in which customers sell, market and participate heavily in helping develop innovative solutions for them.

Inspire: Businesses like, who use cause marketing (they donate one percent of all top line revenues to charity) and companies like Apple that appeal to the passion of the technology of the future available here today, can inspire consumers. Bill bemoans the fact that America seems to lack “another Big Goal that a president can rally all Americans behind — such as John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the moon?” Instead, he finds that:

It’s a sad day when the party of Reagan trots out a Power Point-toting Paul Ryan to inspire voters, with his message of small government and individual responsibility straight from the pages of Ayn Rand. How inspiring is that to, say, Jeremy, the college student at Tuesday night’s debate? Not very, I suspect.

We can also applying this principle to President Obama, who has been criticized for appearing “too professorial.” His failure in the first presidential debate derived from his inability to rise to the grandiose occasion and match the spirited tone of his rival.

Position: While neither political party, given the political polarization, could have led the nation to a full recovery from the Bush recession, President Obama’s initiatives have not been well presented. As a result, the narrative was coopted by an opposition that portrayed the jobs bill as pork and health care reform as a bureaucratic nightmare and a drag on the economy. Even though the stimulus has been judged a success by economists, the average citizen sees the bailout of large institutions, rather than feels the effects of the economy having been brought back from the brink of disaster.  While the Obama administration has an impressive record of economic results, including jobs recovery and the lowest spending of any recent administration, it’s hard to prove a negative. The argument that things would have been much worse given the austerity policies of the Republican Party is a difficult one to make stick.  Vital initiatives that could have been heralded as amazing accomplishments could have been better positioned to resonate with and inspire the average citizen.

Resonate:  An important principle in organizational communication is that a marketer needs to understand how to cascade communications through the organization and to position accomplishments by aligning them so that they resonate with the values and beliefs that people hold. Even coopting the anger of the audience is a way to relate to them, per Mitt Romney’s campaign approach. While Mitt Romney may not be a very inspiring candidate, President Obama’s failure to captivate the imaginations of people, as he did in his first presidential bid has proven a major a marketing deficit. And the failure to present a strong case has allowed the Romney campaign to coopt the anger and frustration of the public, a dynamic that candidate Obama had formerly tapped into in his first campaign.


It is easy to oversimplify or overgeneralize, and I do not mean to trivialize or take a cynical view of the issues behind the politics. However, there are general marketing lessons that we can take away from the political arena. In focusing on the marketing aspects of the politics, it is clear enough that the parties have a brand problem.  And the reality is that the way in which a candidate is positioned can greatly impact the outcomes of the election, and the policies. As Bill puts it:

I say “market” presidents rather than “select” them because the way in which an organization commits to market its products and services can substantially determine the quality of the product it produces and sells.