When most folks think of great brands, they think “Apple,” “Coca Cola,” “Louis Vuitton” or “Mercedes” – globally renowned names evoking not just quality products but a sense of style, coolness, purpose, and desirability.
Republicans get that part – they recognize a brand’s power in reaching and attracting voters. But ask their political operatives about “branding strategy.” They’ll furrow their brows nervously and – wait for it – describe massive network ad campaigns and a couple of regularly repeated radio spots. And maybe throw in some “Morning in America” images and a graphic or two.
Note to the GOP Stalwarts: The Cola Wars ended in stalemate, ALF turned out to be a Muppet, “The Love Boat” was long ago scrapped into razor blades, and you have lost five out of the last six presidential elections. In other words, the 1980s are over. And so is their branding strategy.
Grasping that reality is the key to understanding why Team Obama continues to beat the GOP like a drum – and key to seizing the only chance for a Republican comeback.
You see, in the 1980s, political consultants and consumer-products marketers both had access to consumer and voter data not all that different from what’s available now. Focus groups, detailed polling data, and Nielsen ratings and viewer demographics were available then, just as they are today. And the voting public was just as complex and granular.
The fundamental difference was that in the 1980s, there were three major networks. Cable was basically MTV, HBO and Cinemax, with CNN a mere niche ad player, barely registering on the political Richter scale. Each market had three or four FM music stations and the same number of news, talk radio, or oldies stations on AM.
This lack of diversity forced political consultants to devise messages and commercials with the broadest possible appeal. Since they couldn’t disseminate specifically tailored messages, they also couldn’t fully leverage the complex data available to target voter sub-groups. The exception was direct mail – of limited utility given the primitive software tools and lists, and its relative lack of punch.
Fast-forward to 2008, with Team Obama’s glittering insights about the power and versatility of new technologies. The Internet and the explosion of cable channels, each with their own niche following, have made it possible to micro-target tailored messaging to small segments of voters, and nimbly adjust that messaging whenever circumstances warrant. Moreover, Twitter and Facebook serve as both message delivery platforms and polling devices – offering instantaneous feedback and statistically meaningful metrics.
The Obama campaign pounced with heavy investments. They employed mathematicians – a.k.a. “data scientists” — to help them dig into the preferences and tendencies of each group, subgroup, and sub-subgroup. They matched customized messaging and appeals with appropriate cable outlets and social media platforms. They collected email addresses via cell phones at campaign events. In other words, they made the most of today’s technologies – both hard and software – leveraging them to the president’s advantage.
Republicans? With few exceptions (more among conservative interest groups), they’re still clinging to their 80s ways as if the Internet Revolution had never happened. “The Message” for the campaign is still handed down, etched on stone tablets, from “The Consultant” and “The Pollster.” They might as well still be rocking crimped hair and listening to Prince.
The result — in 2008, 2012, and again, in last year’s Virginia governor’s race – is something like the scene from “The Final Countdown” (appropriately enough, from 1980), when a nuclear aircraft carrier goes back in time to December 6, 1941, and two modern fighters engage two Japanese Zero Bombers at Pearl Harbor.
Like those Japanese pilots, the GOP candidates never knew what hit them. Speed and agility kill, and the GOP makes for a slow-moving target. It’s no wonder so many of the old-school messaging gurus are getting out of the business. The GOP simply cannot hack it in today’s tech-savvy world.