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October 31, 2008

Marketing Rules on the Campaign Trail

Noel Capon
R.C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing
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Barack Obama did not go to business school, but he will win the U.S. presidency because he understands the core principle of developing a market strategy — the positioning statement. Similar to how L’Oreal became an industry leader by telling a consistent story to its customers (“Because You’re Worth It”), Barack Obama has offered voters a consistent message: “The Change We Need.” It’s everywhere: in his speeches, in the advertising, and in the placards held his by supporters at campaign events. By contrast, John McCain’s message has been inconsistent and confused.

As any marketing student knows, the positioning statement has four elements: customer target, competitor target, value proposition, and reason to believe. Obama’s customer targets are the specific voters he is trying to attract: young and first-time voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents. Obama is not concerned with mainstream Republicans or the religious right, reflected in his decision to make little effort in heavily red states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. His competitor target is also pretty clear — it’s not McCain, but rather George W. Bush. How many times has Obama reminded us that “John McCain voted with President Bush over 90% of the time”? Obama’s advertisements even depict McCain confirming that assertion (video).

Obama’s value proposition, “The Change We Need,” is clear and resolute, but from the start his main problem has been establishing the reason to believe. Why should anyone think that a first-term senator from Illinois with minimal executive experience can handle the most powerful office in the world? Sure, he’s an excellent speaker and has a credible record in Illinois, but president of the United States?

The answer is threefold: first, he has run a highly disciplined campaign that has been consistently on message; to put it another way, he has stuck to his value proposition. Second, his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate has shored up his foreign policy credentials. Third, in all three presidential debates, Obama showed himself to be intelligent, capable, and thoughtful about just exactly what needs change, and how he would go about implementing it.

John McCain, on the other hand, has got his marketing all wrong. Independents hold the key to the election, but McCain chose the right wing of the Republican Party as his customer target, evidenced by the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain’s competitor target is clearly Senator Obama, but he might have done better running against Congressional Democrats, thinking, “Things don’t look good for Republicans in the House and Senate, but a McCain presidency will keep a lid on the Democrats’ excesses.”

McCain’s real problem, though, has been his value proposition. What is it, you ask? Well, there are a few to choose from: war hero, bipartisan, courageous patriot, conservative, straight-talker, and experienced leader. While each of these is credible on its own, there is no cohesive narrative or consistent value proposition. One moment, McCain’s a war hero, the next he’s an experienced political leader, and then later he’s a bipartisan trying to build consensus on immigration. The shoot-from-the-hip, overnight decision to select Sarah Palin, the suspension of his campaign and his personal attacks on Obama have destroyed whatever coherence a voter might try to construct. Just compare all of this to the resolute consistency of “The Change We Need.”

So what should we take away from this presidential race? First, I would like to award Barack Obama an Honorary Honors grade for the marketing core course at Columbia Business School. John McCain is receiving an Honorary Fail, but he can turn this into a Low Pass by submitting an analytic paper on the role of positioning in the market strategy. Second, and more generally, the market strategy is at the core of any successful business strategy. Check with your own marketing department. If they cannot articulate a coherent positioning statement, then you have a problem!

Noel Capon is the R.C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing at Columbia Business School. He is author of The Marketing Mavens; his marketing textbook, Managing Marketing in the 21st Century, is available FREE online at www.mm21c.com.


by Paul Capon | October 31, 2008 at 3:40 PM

Very well put, but you entirely too much time on your hands.

by Karim | November 01, 2008 at 1:54 AM

Completely agreed. John McCain's campaign also tried to co-op the "change" mantra (which the renamed the "maverick" mantra) but failed. It might have resonated with more people if they'd done it a few months earlier and stayed consistent about it, but that, combined with the fact that Obama's campaign had already established the "change" USP, and the fact that it probably wasn't the most believable USP anyway (picture of McCain hugging George W. Bush) just proved that "you can't out-Wal Mart Wal Mart." -Karim http://regispromotion.com

by Juan Caldon | November 01, 2008 at 5:11 PM

All of what you have said is very true except that those three reasons you gave do not compensate all complete lack of experience he has. At the end of the day all Obama has are his words, and that's just not enough proof that he is worthy to lead. Also, I ca assure you that he will loose the election to John McCain.

by Dan D. | November 01, 2008 at 6:45 PM

Senator McCain must of read this post, because he has decided to take the advice to run against a Congress controlled by Dems, as a president to keep them in check.

by Courtney M | November 03, 2008 at 11:58 AM

In last week's New York Times Magazine, there was a related piece, "The Making (and Remaking) of John McCain," precisely about McCain's changing narrative. Even in today's Wall Street Journal, which ran final pre-election op-eds by each candidate, you can see the final messages McCain and Obama are taking with them to the polls. No matter your political views, it's been a fascinating election from a communications perspective.

by Osifo A. | November 03, 2008 at 10:02 PM

I am pretty sure that after this election we will see a lot of politicians from other countries adopt Obama's "Change" slogan. I hope he wins tomorrow. He has run a much better campaign that Mr. McCain.

by Inspired Entrepreneur | November 08, 2008 at 9:53 AM

This is a great post blog post. The point about a disciplined campaign is absolutely true. In fact it was a key decider for my vote. I reflected on the well-managed effort and its hopeful representation of a well-managed administration. This point swung my moderate-Republican vote! On a side note I have been surprised to not see detailed information on the marketing efforts of the campaign. (or maybe I don't know where to look) i.e. How many emails? How many contacts with every different tier of donors? Personally I gave $25 to the campaign very early so that I could have a front row seat to the marketing. I was amazed at the number of emails they sent. It was literally 1-3 day almost always asking for money. I thought they could have had a little more content but of course their point was to raise money. The ability to send repeated emails is a point that we are always struggling with in my business. We sell corporate holiday cards wholesale and retail. These business Christmas cards as a product "act a lot like a campaign with hyper-seasonality/finality of a day/time occuring. It's a difficult problem of "annoyance" versus "attention and action". Of course with a campaign that happens only once every 4 years they can push harder than a business and they certainly did!!!!

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