Want to Win Voters, Members or Media? Think Soda, Beer, French Fries

Alliance  ·  January 31, 2016

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”

Before entering the world of public policy marketing three years ago, I spent 18 years exclusively in the corporate and small business world creating and marketing consumer and business-to-business brands.

Wow. What a difference!

In the for-profit sector, marketers develop brands very carefully to own a unique position in a consumer’s mind.  They do this by creating products with distinct attributes in price, promotion, product and placement – the “Four Ps.”

The Four Ps have been marketing mix gospel for decades. The narrower your target market and thus brand definition, the more powerful your brand. Think Volvo versus Chevrolet. One stands for safety, the other… many things.

Yet, in Washington, many organizations fight for sameness. They purport to be the true representative of “all-American values” with red, white and blue colors and the shortest name or acronym possible. Their communication strategy is cluttered; they try to be all things to all people. In short, the General Motors of politics.

I suggest that many advocacy organizations could increase their influence by narrowing their focus and creating a distinct, defendable mental position in the minds of their target audience. They should invest strategic thinking into determining the emotional benefit their organization offers that distinguishes itself from its competition in what analysts call our “attention economy” (the result of the fact that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon phrased it, “the rapid growth of information causes scarcity of attention”). Capturing attention is where profits and influence can be found.

If your organization is not unique and merely duplicates other efforts, look for the mental whitespace of unmet needs and consider charting a path.

Great brands create or lead a category, a much more profitable position than fighting on price discounts. Steve Jobs, for example, created multiple new products to satisfy what in marketing are referred to as unmet “need states.” He didn’t create a better CD or office software package, as Sony and Microsoft already owned that space. Instead, Apple created the iPod and other products no one had ever seen before.

iPod, iPhone and iPad compete in entirely new markets, which allowed Apple to avoid costly fights with entrenched competitors when they were introduced. You don’t price compare when shopping for an Apple product but you often do when buying a commodity product. Product differentiation, first mover advantage and narrow brand focus make it difficult for competitors to displace Apple from its leadership role.

Successful, i.e., profitable brands grow by focusing their communication points on the emotional benefits. Think of the advertising you see from Apple, Starbucks and other premium brands – you never see Porsche offering a cash rebate. In order to be credible, the emotional benefits of the brand promise must be supported by “reasons to believe” (RTB) – the tactics such as product quality and service that make the brand special. The beverage industry is well known for creating emotional connections for otherwise generic, me-to products. In a marketing sense, Miller beer actually owned the 5-7 pm time of day with “Miller Time.” Corona’s current “find your beach” campaign encourages beer drinkers to find their “beach,” wherever it may be, expanding the Corona state of mind beyond the sun, sand and surf to include city living and ski slopes.

I led the Poppers jalapeno snack marketing for Heinz foods. Research showed the emotional benefits of “youthful, upbeat, social, fun” which was supported by functional features / RTBs such as “fun shapes, party food, bite sized, indulgent.”  I created the slogan “Bring Home the Fun” to communicate the “enjoy anytime” nature of a “party in a box.”  I also managed marketing for the Ore-Ida frozen potato business for Heinz. Research showed that “crunchy” French Fries elicited stronger purchase intent than “crispy” French Fries. Who knew?  That’s why it is important to do research.

Similarly, political candidates, nonprofits and advocacy organizations can benefit from brand management. If you are a candidate for Congress and the biggest issue in your district is job creation, your communications materials should have a tight focus on that issue unless your opponent already is well known as the “jobs candidate.” John McCain attempted to de-position Barack Obama as the youth candidate by adding Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election. McCain’s plan faced an uphill battle, as President Obama had ownership of the “youthful” candidate position no matter how energetic Sarah Palin appeared. And people vote for the Presidential candidate, not the Vice President. In order to defeat Obama, McCain needed to establish his own brand in a emotion more relevant to voters than “youthful” – perhaps “job creation.”

Successful candidates have a singular, clear, memorable position. Whether its Reagan’s numerous quotes on the size of the government or Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid this link.”

Anybody remember what single-term President George H. W. Bush stood for?

A trap non-profits, associations and government agencies fall into is overreliance on acronyms. Acronyms are bad branding. What do NLRB, NRC, DNC or RNC mean to people unfamiliar with Washington DC politics? Nothing. I believe “liberal” (or “progressive”) and “conservative” are more powerful brand names than “Democrat” and “Republican.” And could party leaders please rebrand away the donkey and elephant? No marketing expert created those.

There are several examples of successful re-branding of Washington DC-based advocacy organizations.

In 2010, I led the rebranding of National Association of Manufacturers. The organization was identified by the acronym NAM (which sounds like Vietnam), red, white and blue colors and a very tactical slogan (“The Americans who make things”). The new branding presented “The Manufacturers” with a fresh, modern blue color and a strategic slogan “Leading Innovation. Creating Opportunity. Pursuing Progress.” The slogan was validated by the frequent reference to statistics showing the United States remaining the world leader in manufacturing, significantly ahead of China and Japan.  In this way The Manufacturers dispelled common misperceptions about the manufacturing brand., and, when the media, policy influencers and the public say the organization name, thoughts of the Vietnam War will not come to mind.

Another example of successful rebranding is how the Association of American Railroads transformed the name by which it is popularly known from “AAR” to “Railroads.” The trade association also repositioned the railroads brand to highlight it as environmentally-friendly by emphasizing that freight rail has a significantly lower carbon footprint than do trucks. It also points out that railroads reduce overcrowding on highways, which definitely resonates with Washingtonians. The communications tactics or RTBs all support the emotional benefit that freight rail is the solution to a cleaner, greener America.

President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign team employed good branding fundamentals. It owned a single word, “change,” the color blue and the concise communications design and wording. The campaign team didn’t use its own hunches as to what would work, but invested in many hours of rigorous analytics on the most mundane variables. For example, it learned that the button text “Learn More” causes significantly more click thrus than “Sign Up,” Join Now” or “Sign Up Now” than any other message on a website.

A relevant energy policy example is ShopNGV.com, the leading resource for people considering buying or converting to a natural gas-powered light duty vehicle. When ShopNGV examined the natural gas market, its executives noticed a “whitespace” opportunity for light vehicles. ShopNGV leveraged this very small niche to own the segment. As awareness of the Marcellus shale and Pickens Plan has grown significantly, so has the customer base and advertising revenue for the company. Ultimately ShopNGV.com, along with CNG Oklahoma, were able to leverage their brands to have a successful Congressional meeting focused on natural gas vehicles.

Associations and nonprofits can benefit from the same principle. Start with an unexploited niche, and lead with clear, focused, consistent communications. Small trade and professional organizations may see themselves as at a disadvantage versus the well-known lobbying groups but tighter positioning, when executed well, can provide advantages.

One could argue the ultimate broken Washington brand is “Congress.” The name should represent “American exceptionalism,” but approval ratings show Congress has failed miserably at owning this segment. If marketing principles are any guide, and I believe they are, Congress won’t improve its approval ratings until it disciplines itself to do just a limited number of things, and then does these things well.

Candidates and organizations can expand their influence by learning what Congress has not.