Change You’d Better Believe In

What Business Executives Can Learn from the 2008 Presidential Campaign

THE PARALLELS BETWEEN A POLITICAL CAMPAIGN AND MARKETING CAMPAIGN are obvious – understanding voter perceptions and attitudes, understanding issues that will move those voters to vote your way, competing for control of the campaign dialogue and going for the eventual win. As with politics, in business today you have less time to analyze, decide, act and react – every day is your election day.

We use this model in developing strategic and tactical plans for our clients because it’s more exacting than traditional marketing approaches. It is a model I began developing with the pioneering political and corporate strategy firm, Sawyer-Miller Group; the one I used in working with Sergio Zyman over the years; one that we’ve continued to refine and will continue to refine every day.

In politics the performance consequence is absolute – there are no equivocal results on that first Tuesday in November; no excuses and no second chances. It teaches us to go for the win. In politics it’s not enough to get voters to like or even prefer your candidate; you’ve got to get them motivated to register, go to the polling place, wait in line and then pull the right lever. The difficulty of that task keeps you focused on those voters every day: you have to understand their perceptions and attitudes to learn what it will take to “move the movable.”

The Presidential campaign of 2008 is one of the most interesting in our history. In this time of turbulent change in every aspect of our lives, the American people are demanding more change. As Thomas Jefferson had hoped, the American Revolution continues.

Here are ten lessons for executives to pay close attention to from Campaign ’08:

1. Believe in Change.

Barack Obama certainly has the right theme for 2008; but both he and his opponent John McCain are reflections of the national political, economic and social current.

For the past 12 months, all of us have been watching the same polling numbers. Seventy to eighty percent of the American people of every demographic and political affiliation have been saying they want fundamental change. The President’s approval rating is at an all-time low. Of our national institutions, only Congress rates lower than the President (it reminds me of what Benjamin Disraeli once said of a political rival: “It’s true that I am a low, mean snake. But you, sir, could walk beneath me wearing a top hat.”). The “right direction/wrong direction” attitudes of Americans toward America are also historically negative. The call for change is sweeping and obviously extends beyond politics. This is the toughest time in history for incumbents in any field; the toughest time to defend the status quo. The fact that the eventual contestants in this long political fight were Clinton, Obama and McCain is simply recognition of the change environment; they represented the best chance for fundamental change within their parties and within American politics.

What’s breathtaking in this campaign is the failure of the Clinton campaign to take the change position when it was available to them; the first credible woman candidate for President in American history. Instead, they positioned Mrs. Clinton as the candidate with the experience to lead. That mistake ceded the most powerful position in the campaign to Obama and cost her the Presidency.

  • The lesson is blood simple: believe in what the voters are telling you . . .and telling you and telling you. Politics (and this campaign in particular) teaches you never to neglect the obvious. Take the best position and fight to own it. No matter whether you are a market leader or start-up, learn to think of change as opportunity, not threat. Use it or lose it.

2. It’s the White House or Out House.

The Clinton campaign’s positioning mistake is classic, but not unique in this campaign. Remember, the presumptive Republican nominee twelve months ago was George Allen . . .and his campaign ended on YouTube, based on twenty seconds of off-mike audio. For every candidate who failed to launch or failed to achieve orbit, there’s another fundamental mistake from which to learn. The only problem in politics is you don’t get the opportunity for a “do over.” There’s no second chance.

In this environment of rapid and radical change, it’s more important than ever before for any organization to get it right the first time; and in the words of the American Civil War’s General Nathan Bedford Forrest, “Get there firstest with the mostest.”

  • You must train your company, organization or team to thinkin terms of Election Day results for any project of any length. Create a win/lose evaluation of results (“almost” doesn’t count in elections). Adjust the project calendar back from the day you want that result; building toward it. Get the win . . .or walk.

3. What Can Be Known Will Be Known.

Today, the C-Suite is a fishbowl. And corporate leaders are learning what life has always been like for political leaders. In politics nothing is private. Of course, the McCain and Obama campaigns devote teams to opposition research, looking for any detail from the opponent’s past and record that might provide an opening. Now they also devote teams to researching their own candidate’s personal and public history; the point is to get there first, before the opposition or the press (and out-running the bloggers makes that harder than ever).

  • Know your vulnerabilities as well as your strengths. Be totally, granularly, honest with yourself about them. And when crisis strikes (as it does every company, every candidate and all of us personally), be ready and willing to tell the truth, tell it all and tell it fast. As political crisis after political crisis has taught us, the only time you have the opportunity for control of the dialogue is at the very beginning of the incident. Of course, when crisis does hit, the lawyers will tell you to hunker down and clam up. The C-Suite office doors tend to slam shut. And rumors begin to win the arm-wrestling with facts. Today, silence is an admission of guilt. The only way to control the dialogue (particularly about yourself and your reputation) is to be active in that dialogue from the beginning. Belly up to the moment; it’s the only winning strategy.

4. Control the Dialogue.

Any campaign in politics or business is a long dialogue with constituents and a long debate with the opposition/ competition. Politics understands the need to take control of that debate from the beginning and hold onto it for dear life day by day. When Hillary Clinton finally re-found her position and voice and solidified her attack on Obama (“How much do you really know about Barack Obama?”), she narrowly missed being the true “comeback kid” of ’08. In the McCain-Obama General Election contest the fight has already begun to control the debate. It’s a fight waged not only by the two central combatants, but by their surrogates, by special interests and the press.

The candidate who dominates the campaign dialogue (whether that candidate is the leader or not) will dictate the terms, the timing of change of themes and the tone of the debate. It’s an insurmountable advantage; the same clearly goes in today’s volatile marketplaces.

  • You must establish the “campaign dialogue” by taking therelevant and different (i.e.; valuable) position in the market – establish your presence, communicate your relevant benefits, competitive differentiation, credibility and user/usage/ associative imagery early and often. Then be ready to fight every day to hold that control.

5. Play Offense.

No campaign in history has been won from the defensive position.That’s why there’s that emphasis on control of the dialogue. And that’s why it’s so important to act and react quickly to change or challenge.

The best strategy of all is to control the dialogue using change as a tool – remembering the fundamental political principle: “change or be changed.”

Ask any successful football coach: learning to win is about learning to hate losing. Many organizations learn to live with losing; often by trying to “manage decline” of brands over a period of time. That’s not just a “no-win” strategy – it creates a cynical and defeatist attitude.

In the same way, learning to play offense is learning never to play defense, never be reactive and always take the game to your opponent. Particularly when you are challenged by a competitive situation or internal crisis, move to the battle immediately and take control of the dialogue with a proactive strategy and tactical plan.

We always quote the famous Alabama coaching legend, Bear Bryant, who said he sought players who were “Mobile, agile and hostile.”

That’s the attitude of “play offense.” It means moving constantly to opportunity. It means “in your face” competitive strategies and tactics. And it can mean developing a success culture within your organization.

  • Creating a success culture isn’t just a matter of establishing a winning attitude – it means establishing a winning record. We follow the insurgent political principle of “do the doable.” Of course, you start by defining the ultimate destination of your organization; define success . . .what it will look like and feel like in three to five years if you do everything right. That’s the win you want. Then, in the spirit of “do the doable” you arrange your objectives toward that overall goal in order of difficulty; not just the usual three to five business objectives, but fifteen to twenty . . .so that you’ve got frequent benchmark opportunities to get first downs on the way to the goal line. The easiest are put first in line (not even “low hanging fruit”; we’re talking about fruit already on the ground); get some wins; build momentum and celebrate every victory to create that taste for it. Step by step, take on the more challenging objectives – picture building a stairway of objectives toward the ultimate win.

6. Define the Stakes in the Election.

Every political campaign would like to dictate the issues in that election; based on the strengths of their candidate. In a democracy (unless it’s controlled by Robert Mugabe) the information environment determines the issues. It’s a matter of voter perceptions and attitudes based on their own situation, what they hear from their neighbors and co-workers and what they see/hear/read on TV, the Web or in print.

Defining the stakes in the election doesn’t just mean addressing the key issues – it means convincing the voters their decision will make a difference in deciding the outcome of that issue (by voting for or voting against your candidate). As one key issue, the war in Iraq provides a clear example and a clear choice for voters: Obama has said that as President he would begin the withdrawal of American troops immediately; McCain says that we must continue to fight to win.

  • The political campaign parallels a brand campaign. It must establish awareness, relevance, differentiation, credibility and user/usage/associative imagery. You must establish awareness of your position among all target constituents. That position must have relevance, based on the voters’ perceptions and attitudes.To win, the position must also have differentiation; a clear contrast with the opposition. The candidate’s position must be founded in her/his own credibility, based on personal history, past record or statements and third party testimonials. And that position must be associated with the most powerful and evocative imagery (often, a candidate will wrap their own position in patriotic imagery; and characterize the opponent as well – remember Roger Ailes’ brilliant use of images of Governor Michael Dukakis in the tank; or Mark McKinnon’s use of John Kerry sail-boarding in pink tank trunks?). A successful campaign will develop user (whose wants/needs/ dreams do we represent?), usage (what kind of country are we building?) and associative imagery (what will we be like – usually based on perception of both America’s past and future). It’s a fundamental role of politics and marketing: the candidate/choice that does the best job of defining the stakes in the campaign will win the campaign.

7. Discipline Wins.

In spite of the enormous amounts of money poured into the ’08 campaign, the job of David Axelrod (Obama) or Charlie Black (McCain) is to make sure that every single dollar is going toward winning the election. So campaign spending is allocated according to the campaign’s core strategy – the over-arching strategy designed to deliver the win. In the last five decades, American Presidential elections have been decided by very narrow margins; even a blowout is a matter of winning a few key states by relatively slim margins; a swing of two to three percent could easily change history.

Reading political history shows that one rule has applied to every winning campaign: discipline wins. It is the campaign who is most disciplined in developing and communicating its core strategy that wins. Even in the complex machinery of electing the leader of the Free World, it’s the details that make a difference. And that one core strategy holds all those zillions of details together and aims them toward winning.

  • In developing a marketing or corporate communications campaign, that same level of discipline must be developed. We help our clients develop that core campaign strategy. And from that strategy, we work with them to create the foundational piece of communications – the basic themes and messages of the campaign. For this, we use the political format of the “3X5 Card” discipline: your key message (how you will create relevant differentiation in your market) and four or five supporting themes must be able to fit on one side of a 3X5” index card that easily fits into a pocket.That message must be delivered by everyone and everything involved in that marketing effort. Since the dictionary defines marketing as a “process to add value to transactions,” “everyone” and “everything” means everyone from the CEO office to the loading dock and every action and interaction up the supply chain and down the demand chain. Never let the competition, detractors or pundits knock you off of your message. With the media, follow Henry Kissinger’s example. He once came into the State Department press room and asked: “Okay. What questions have you prepared for my answers?”

8. Speed Wins.

The comfort of time never seems to exist in the political campaign or on the battlefield. So the ability to decide and move as quickly and as surely as possible is a key strategic advantage.The same is true in business today. It would be great to have nine months’ of market analysis or even twelve weeks of market research to help evaluate the stakes of a key decision…but that kind of time seldom exists. Everyone acknowledges that markets have changed and keep changing at a faster and more dramatic pace.

But marketing has changed very little to adapt to that new reality. That’s why we recommend imposing the model of the insurgent political campaign on today’s marketing campaign. Remember, the Republican nominee in 2008 went through the entire primary election season without a pollster on staff.The judgments were made on the best available evidence. Where’s the opportunity and where is it moving? Given the changing ways consumers get, process and act on information—what are the channels that really matter for marketing communications; and how can we re-allocate resources to target those channels? What are the weaknesses in our competition’s positions; and how can we capitalize, using speed as a weapon?

  • In today’s marketing and strategic communications environment, you must compress the marketing process: developing strategy and delivering it into the marketplace must happen in real time. Speed is a meaningful advantage. A flat organization is a fast organization – even if your company may be hierarchical, develop a flat and fast decision-making process. You will need to make more decisions with less analysis beforehand; learn to use hypothesis testing (what we call “presearch”) to track ahead, not look behind. And reward risk-taking in every endeavor (which will mean rewarding mistakes in many cases); “coulda-shoulda-woulda” is what the loser thinks, not the winner.

9. Everything Communicates.

All of us who’ve taken part in political campaigns have some interesting scars to show for the lesson that “everything communicates.” Every detail of the operations and communications of a campaign, formal or informal, is communicating to some important audience. Today those moments of detail (certainly, the most excruciating) often end up with several million hits on YouTube. That’s why successful campaigns form all of those details around one core communications strategy; and even then, one or two can meander off to cause embarrassment or worse. The Obama campaign has been tremendously disciplined – even so, the Reverend Wright’s political rants should have been foreseen as a liability and managed much faster. Because of that failure, you can be sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Reverend this fall (in Republican and interest-group commercials).

  • We’ve recently completed an audit of market communications for a client: from product to package to merchandising to promotion to pricing to distribution to advertising to PR to CRM to events and sponsorships. And we’ve put it to the political test: how is each detail (no matter how large or small the commitment of marketing resources) going to help win the consumer’s “voting” decision? How will this detail build the brand’s value proposition? How will it convince more people to come back more often to buy more? In today’s tougher economy and more competitive markets, every company and every brand should be doing the same kind of “everything communicates” audit. Today, no detail of marketing is neutral – “everything communicates” means every detail is either selling or un-selling your brands and products.

10. Win Every Day.

I’m often told by a corporate leader that what separates business campaigns from political campaigns is that “we have an election every day.”

Of course, the focus in the 2008 Election will be on that one day; Tuesday, November 4th. But in reality, that day’s results are a culmination of roughly 700 other days’ results.You must win every day, every week, every Primary Election, every debate and every change of the campaign dialogue to be sure to win. The Reagan Presidency was sometimes derided for taking its campaign approach into administration of our national government. The Reagan Administration recognized then what’s widely recognized now: the job of President is the job of Great Communicator. Our President must communicate the complex workings of our government to our people. Our President must gain national (and political) consensus behind the policies he/ she believes in for our country. Our President must define America (the American brand) for the world. That’s a day to day job; 24x7x365. In the political campaign, in governance or in running a successful brand, any day’s loss of control of the dialogue is dangerous.

  • During McDonald’s historic resurgence over the past three years, it has been Mike Roberts’ “Plan to Win” that put the emphasis on winning every day, winning every customer and winning every transaction that has made the difference. “Plan to win” – it’s a great phrase; plan every day and every detail to win; to deliver on your marketing objectives. And learn to delete any detail (no matter how big or small) that’s not going to help deliver the win.