Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Vote Often and Early

I just voted (primary election) and with all the money that gets spent on elections, I have to admit that my favorite political marketing tool is still the good, old-fashioned sign. Maybe because it's so low-tech and yesterday, maybe because I've been a sign holder plenty of times, I love seeing the "visibilities" (people standing on street corners, holding their candidate's signs, and waving to people). I love the people standing around the polls, plumping for their guy. I love the signs on people's lawns, or taped to telephone poles and trees. I love political rallies: Go Team!

But the reality, of course, is that there's a lot more to candidate marketing than a cardboard sign.

We've certainly known for a long time that candidates are really and truly marketed, that handlers handle everything from speaking points to coiffures. (Joe McGinnis' landmark book on the topic, The Selling of the President, was about Nixon's election in 1968.) It's a given that candidates must have an image, and that their positioning must be carefully honed and adhered to. (This, of course, is why we like it so much when a candidate gets away from the wranglers and shows what we believe to be his or her true colors. You go, Howard Dean!)

Still, it's always interesting to see how the different candidates are packaged. In today's Democratic primary in Massachusetts, there's a three-way battle for the gubernatorial nomination. Deval Patrick, Chris Gabrieli, and Tom Reilly - all have compelling back stories - no legacies here; all three are in many respects quite admirable. No surprise that each candidate's positioning is more around image than issues.

Patrick is the "man of passion." Together we can do something or other). He's got the preacher thing going and can really rev up a crowd. (Although I must say that the ad which excerpted a speech in which he said "we have to get Massachusetts up off of its knees" didn't quite do it for me. Sure, we don't have a growing population and housing costs are a bear, but by pretty much every measure of quality of life - education, health, income - we're in the top 10. The "off its knees" sounded like he was talking about Louisiana or Mississippi.)

Gabrieli is the "man of action" - I'll get results. He's a successful businessman, and, while we've had that with Mitt Romney for a long while and gotten no results, it's still a decent story. And this ad was a big improvement on his humorous attempt to portray himself as a take-out-the-trash common man, when he's extremely wealthy.

Reilly is the "man of the people" - Hey, I live in a modest house in a modest neighborhood, just like everyone else. And he really does have the common touch. He looks, talks, and acts like he grew up in the same neighborhood I did.

Frankly, each candidate image is reasonably appealing. So I needed to actually look at their stands on the issues. I missed the debates, but I did comb through the web sites, listen to the TV pundits on election eve, and glance through the issues chart in the morning paper. The choice became clear: Patrick for Governor. (Prior to actually looking at the issues, I'd been leaning Gabrieli, especially when our incumbent lieutenant governor, who's the Republican nominee for gov, ran a ludicrous, ad hominen, over the top attack ad against him.)

I could have made an emotional, image based decision for any of these candidates and let it go at that. (And these guys are similar enough to each other that it wouldn't really matter all that much.) But I needed to know exactly what I was buying, errrr, voting for here.

There's a marketing lesson in here. When we come up with the image, the positioning, and the tag line for our products, we need to keep in mind that somewhere, someone in the company that's thinking of buying our product will actually want to know what is does and how it works. In many of the ads, web site home pages, and collateral I see for technology products, I find myself struggling to figure out exactly what they do. Just telling me that your product will increase ROI, improve employee productivity, and increase operational effectiveness ain't enough if I don't know what the product is actually good for.

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