Changing the Game in Retail Politics

Published: March 24, 2012

Just as brands strive to establish long-term relationships with consumers, U.S. presidential candidates need to change their tactics to permanently engage a media-driven & mobile citizenry.

It is always at this juncture in the primaries, when candidates are clawing for last-minute positioning, that it becomes transparent to the public that the election process is eerily similar to selling a product in a hugely competitive retail market.

All the techniques that Proctor & Gamble or Coca Cola use to market their products and drive sales are (if unnaturally) the same as those embraced by the candidates in the 2012 presidential election.

It is an interesting comparison. Let’s break down the retail ecosystem from manufacturing to final sale. Products are bought based on their function (or the service that they deliver), brand recall, brand loyalty, convenience, and, of course, price.


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Now, let’s compare this to the current presidential race. The candidates all have something to sell: They have a product, a service and a price.

The product they are marketing is themselves. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign officers, for instance, are trying to sell Romney the man, the father, the ex-governor, the future president, etc. And they do this in a number of ways – by optimizing his camera appeal, wardrobe, personality, ability to carve out a five-second media sound bite, etc.

The service they are offering is outlined in their platform: Their policies, their ideas, and their vision. A campaign, like a retail store, is selling a recognized product with an appealing exterior, with the promise of a rewarding interior.

And, finally, the price is the cost of implementing their service. There is a fine political dance of cost and benefit, as politicians attempt to keep various – and often opposing – factions happy.

So how do they make the sale?

We know that brand marketing focuses on two things: “path to purchase” and in-store marketing. “Path to purchase” refers to the shopper’s experience – from first awareness of the product to time of purchase – and can involve things like jingles on television or radio, YouTube videos, and coupons. This is the step-by-step process of moving the would-be customer into the store or online to purchase the goods.


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That said, brands recognize that most people are impulse buyers. At home, consumers may write out shopping lists and do hours of product research, but in the store, the majority of their basket is full of products bought on pure impulse. Obviously, brands seek to capitalize on this. They spend billions of dollars on advertising to make consumers feel comfortable with their brand. This builds brand recall, which encourages a shopper to pick their product over that of a lesser-known brand when browsing the appropriate aisle.

In the last few years, however, brands have been moving away from campaigns that lead to one-time encounters with their audience. Instead, they have been focusing on driving long-term engagement, seeking to foster more permanent consumer loyalty.

Politicians must do the same.

In the last year, the number of people visiting WhiteHouse.gov via mobile devices has nearly doubled, growing from 3.6 per cent to nearly 6.6 per cent. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showed that more than 25 per cent of Americans used some type of mobile device to engage with the 2010 mid-term election.

Most of this activity is taking place on social networks and through peer-to-peer interactions – it is not directly tied to the candidates’ soap boxes.


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It’s clear that elections can no longer be won by “selling products” in the traditional way. But how can candidates work outside the “retail store” model and move voters into a trusted long-term relationship that will influence their decision at the polls in November? To begin – and, more importantly, to compete – they need to focus on strategies that are more relevant to this digital age. Here’s the advice I would offer them:

  • Think messaging. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 68 per cent of smartphone owners open fewer than six apps per week, and only one per cent of American adults “used a cell-phone app that provided updates from a candidate or group about election news” during the 2010 midterm election. Do not get caught focusing on building comprehensive websites or applications. Focus on simple, personal channels.

  • Think targeting. The attention-challenged small-screen-using consumer needs relevant, targeted communication. Know your audience. And, more importantly, make sure your audience feels you know them.

  • Think authenticity. Move from politics 1.0 to 2.0 and join the conversation. (Current President Barack Obama will gain more traction with voters through his NCAA “Obama Bracket Challenge” than by adopting Instagram. The first shows authenticity, while the latter comes across as “trying too hard.”)

  • Think cross-channel. Voters are channel agnostic. Move with them through the Web, multiple mobile devices, and live media appearances. Create a consistent message and a consistent engagement strategy.

  • Think frictionless. Count clicks to voter conversion. Our attention is constantly being pulled in different directions – we can’t be sold with layers of complex media, and we are averse to wasting our time filling out forms. Make all messages, surveys, and feedback opportunities actionable with a single click.

The key is to focus on mobile messaging, mobile engagement, mobile trust, and building a long-term relationship. In other words, get off the shelf!

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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