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Marketing a political candidate: Key insights


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This year’s Christmas holidays will be very interesting as the share of voice at every home get-together or party will be the entrenchedly competitive campaigns to the most powerful seat in Sri Lanka. My interest is mainly on the cutting edge marketing strategies that will be used in the run up, the last week, on the day of the elections and finally how the victory will be celebrated given that the next phase will be the general elections that will follow. The last competitive elections that the world saw was the 2008 elections in the United States that carved out some of the best marketing strategies that the world has to offer. Let me pick up the key insights from the campaign. Insight 1: What does a consumer want? The United States was clearly at a cross roads at that time with the economy shaky, the standard of living under pressure, out-of control in debt, the growing concentration of wealth among the upper income, disastrous policies of the Bush/Cheney administration and poll numbers on President Bush was at a dangerous low level. The strategists first focused on the needs of a voter which explained the marketing oriented approach that was in play.
 Key issues that a US voter wanted a president to address: Economy        42% War in Iraq        24% Healthcare        12% Terrorism        11% Immigrants        8%
The CNN Opinion Poll of 5 June 2008 reveal that that the burning issues that the US citizens wants the future President of the United States should address are; The economic woes that a typical American family is faced with spiralling inflation and increasing unemployment, a tough task for any government to address as its more supply driven. The second key issue is the war in Iraq. This requires a policy change that will be relatively an easier decision though it will take a full year for implementation at the ground end for people to see the results. The next issue identified in the CNN Poll was healthcare. This is linked to the stability of an economy whilst the issue of Immigrants is once again a policy issue but the decision is a tough call given that there are international ramifications. Hence the strategists developed a need profile which was quite complex, which means that the product range (the solution) that each candidate puts together will have be creatively articulated in the communication strategy. The challenge is that it has to be done with subtleness as the race is so close but the message has to be razor sharp so that it registers in an average American’s mind. Insight 2: Who are the target consumers? Whilst understanding the complexity of the need profile the next task was to identify the target customer, research revealed that a new target group was emerging in the United States – it was called the Hip Hop Generation. This group is between 18-29 years and is estimated to be worth a 44 million votes who can actually tip the scale on Election Day. The profile of this group is Whites – 61%, Hispanics – 17%, Blacks – 15% and Asians – 4%. Qualitative research said that this group celebrates not what is right but, what is wrong in society which adds to the complexity to a presidential hopeful. But from a marketing point of view, it’s an emerging market segment that needs to be addressed. To my mind in such close race between two candidates the 44 million hip hop group can sure make a difference on Election Day. The 47-year-old Democratic candidate Obama appeals to these young voters and in fact the polls say that 71% of them currently support Obama, whilst 28% back McCain. Hence the challenge is which candidate can identify this group’s requirement and address them better in the future. Insight 3: What does the brand have to offer? If one analysed the messages on the multi million dollars advertising moneys spent by both candidates, Barack Obama said a 75 billion dollar economic stimulus is the way forward on the economy via tax cuts, directing spending on working families, senior citizens, home owners and the unemployed while the competitor John McCain advocated that in lowering the tax break from 35% to 25% and introducing R&D into organisation with a financial incentive which is a very strong strategic road map. Analyst predict that Barack Obama’s strategy will add $3.4 trillion to the national debt while McCain’s plan will add $5 trillion which means Obama’s strategy is more feasible. However, the challenge was which message can be communicated in a way that it is more attractive to the American voter. Obama had gone on to make a sea change by recommending that an overhaul of Wall Street regulation is crucial to restoring trust in the US market which to my mind is in line with the brand promise he is making of “Change” but once again the real challenge was how this idea was going to be marketed. On the second key issue, the war in Iraq; Barack Obama clearly opposes military force on Iraq. He went public on May 2007 in a press release where he claims that he voted against a troop funding bill as it did not have a time line for withdrawal while John McCain being a war veteran, voted for military force in Iraq. In fact McCain was an ardent supporter of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. From a marketing point of view the message that caught my attention was when Obama made a historic speech in which he said: “We must fund our troops but we owe them something more. We need a plan to compel the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own future. It’s time to change course.” When one analyses the media explosion that took place on this statement it sure changed course of many voters in America who supported the war. On the third key issue – Healthcare – Barack Obama emphasises on the creation of a national health insurance program for individuals who do not have employment whist John McCain promotes the use of existing children’s health insurance programme which is interesting. On the burning issue of terrorism, Barack Obama advocates that for homeland security he will implement the 9/11 Commission report whilst John McCain states he will close down controversial prisons like Guantanamo Bay. Whilst this may be a sore issue internationally, how important this is to an American voter needs to be established by the McCain camp. On the issue of immigrants, Barack Obama comes down hard, proposing strict immigration reform legislation which is a smart move given that the impact on potential voters are zero whilst boosting the confidence of the American people. On the other hand John McCain says he will increase the funding for border security and support the 700 mile long fence alongside the US/Mexican border. Hence we see that to convince the American public will be a tough challenge given the issues at hand and the solutions that the presidential candidates are offering. Even for the best communication and PR agency in world is will sure be a daunting task. But the one who does a better job in marketing is sure to win on election day. Insight 3: What is the consumer choice? The adage ‘money talks’ will undoubtedly hold true at any elections like what we saw in Sri Lanka in the last couple of months. Reports predicted that overall political expenditure will reach a gigantic $ 4.5 billion dollars in 2008 which means that it will be an increase of 64% against the 2004 presidential election where $2.7 billion was spent. Of this expenditure almost a $3 billion was spent on traditional media like advertising as against the $1.85 billion that was spent at the last election which means that there has been no actual shift in the selection of media. There was a 66% increase in spend to $1.5 billion dollars in media such as direct mail, public relations, in-person events and on line marketing efforts which is interesting but a point to note is that it is not a sea change in the communication strategy of a dynamic marketing campaign. The voter result at one point was is that 47% are in favour of Barack Obama whilst 44% backing John McCain. However, the undecided voter base was crucial and it can be the hip hop community that can change the scale is what analyst predicts. Insight 4: New communication tools The next insight required was the monies spent. The advertising on broadcast television was estimated to be at 52.3% at $2.3 billion as against the 52.8% spent in the 2004 election, which meant that traditional media continued to dominate the communication strategy. I guess, given the issues that need to be addressed like the economy, war in Iraq, healthcare and immigrants there is no option but use stable media that drives credibility. A point to note was that radio advertising is said to have increased to $272 million. A new trend seen is that cable TV spending was the surge by 94% as against the 2004 presidential election while direct mail expenditure increased by 67% to a $1 billion which meant that direct contact communication is been used at the 2008 presidential race. Website marketing is growing at a staggering 152% which means that more interactive communication is been pursued by the two candidates but a point to note is that it is a meagre spend of $73 million which is negligible. A new form of marketing that is taking form is the database driven zip-code targeting messages where niche audiences can be reached is been used this time around which may be to the hip hop community who are between 18-29 years and difficult to reach through traditional media. Hence what we see is that getting a message across in an entrenched competitive market requires sharp marketing strategies like what we saw in the US presidential elections. But the pivot to the ultimate success is not only the communication strategy that can fashion an American to vote for a particular candidate but the actual delivery of that promise. If not it will be like getting a consumer purchase a washing powder by way of sexy advertising but when it comes to getting stubborn stains washed the product fails. Implications to Sri Lanka As I read the current situation, we are seeing how the politics are to be managed which is what we see by way of crossovers. But from today the real game begins where the victor will be marketing at its best. I am eager to see the opinion poll surveys that will be done so that we can see the impacts of marketing activity to voter behaviour. Conclusion Whilst marketing a political candidate can be an interesting challenge, a point to note is that if the solutions promised are implemented, then one can say that socially being responsible is adhered to. If not, one can conclude that marketing a political candidate to high office is an ultimate indignity to the democratic process of a country. (The author is an award-winning marketer in brands and category marketing at national level. The thoughts are strictly his personal views and not the views of the organisation he serves.)

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