No matter how you feel about the results of the 2010 midterms, it’s been an interesting election season. Start with a stagnant economy, add a soured electorate, pour on the tea party activists, and it’s a bitter brew, at least for incumbents. The election also offers lessons for communicators. Here’s what marketing and PR pros can take from 2010.
Be authentic. Pollster Andy Kohut of The Pew Research Center says the voter polls point to one thing – disillusionment. I’d say it goes even deeper, into mistrust. The emerging tea party candidates might not be my cup of…whatever, but they spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. Truth can work wonders in a marketing campaign as well. Just ask Domino’s.
Be exciting. A fresh, engaging story breaks through the noise. The shiniest new brands in politics – relative newcomers like Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio won big this season. I think that’s because a disillusioned electorate, like a jaded consumer, is quick to change the channel if they’re not engaged.
But not too exciting. Extremism gets you noticed (Sharron Angle) but it doesn’t win the middle. Likewise, Carl Paladino’s erratic behavior was ultimately too scary for New York voters, and O’Donnell was haunted by her kooky, 16-year-old TV sound bites. In troubled times, competence and stability inspire trust.
Narrative counts. Yes, all pols like to talk about their humble roots, impoverished childhoods, and sainted mothers, but Rubio’s praise of his immigrant father and self-identification as the “son of exiles” was so eloquent it melted even cynical hearts. We love a good, emotional narrative, whether about a senator, a business, or a brand.
Connect with the customer. Former C-suite dwellers Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina went down in flames. WWF cofounder Linda MacMahon landed hard, despite a roaring start. Some call sexism, but I think it’s bad branding and poor communications. These ladies came across as cold, out-of-touch, and even patronizing. And it doesn’t help that mistrust of business is at an all-time high.
Be transparent. Let’s face it, privacy is a thing of the past. Whitman should have come clean earlier about her undocumented housekeeper. O’Donnell might have anticipated her comic skeletons would come out of the closet. Maybe they did prepare, but like a big brand caught in a crisis situation, they didn’t seem to have a plan.
Don’t take your fans for granted. Most pundits agree that the Democratic challenge was to turn out the core constituencies that helped put Obama over the top in 2008 – primarily young voters and minority groups. Winning their support is like gaining the trust of a fickle or skeptical consumer. You have to earn it, every day.
Stay on message. This is where both the GOP and the tea party, with its razor focus on jobs and spending, really resonated. (Never mind that no one has articulated exactly how those jobs will be created.) In actually fulfilling his campaign promises of passing healthcare and financial reform, the President may have fallen short here.
Listen. One reason the business candidates failed is because they acted like CEOs. Candidates can’t do command and control. Politics is about the customer, and marketing communications in the digital age is the same way. It’s critical to have a relevant message, and to convey it well, but if you don’t listen, you lose.