Why brands should buy into the presidential process

There is no such thing as a typical presidential election in America but the upcoming contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in November is proving to be stranger than most.

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For starters, neither candidate appears to be making much of an attempt to woo voters with their policies. Instead, both seem intent on inciting their own supporters with increasingly divisive strategies that only serve to distance them from winning voters over from the other camp. For Obama, that means an emphasis on increased taxes for richer Americans. Romney, meanwhile, is taking a stronger line on making abortion illegal. Both are policies that antagonise, rather than attract, opposition voters.

And then there are the peculiar convention speeches. Clint Eastwood made all the headlines at the Republican Convention with his improvised speech to an empty chair. Actress Scarlett Johansson made just as strange an impression at the Democratic Convention a week later when she spent almost no time speaking about the relative merits of President Obama and instead focused on the importance of voting.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is making enormous efforts across 19 states to eradicate voter fraud – despite the fact that very few cases have ever been recorded. In Pennsylvania, for example, voters have been told that without an official photo ID they will not be allowed to vote on election day – a move that will remove 500,000 Pennsylvanians from the ballot. In Iowa, the Attorney General has announced he will personally review the list of registered voters and strike off any name that he isn’t convinced is a genuine US citizen. This is despite the fact that when Governor Rick Scott conducted a similar analysis of 180,000 “suspicious” voters in Florida, he turned up a grand total of one fraudulently registered voter.

What on earth is going on? The answer can be found in the current polling numbers for both candidates. For the past two months, Obama and Romney have been running neck and neck. But it’s not the proximity of their respective votes that is creating such strange campaign strategies; it’s the magnitude of their support.

Romney and Obama are both consistently polling between 46 per cent and 48 per cent of the national vote. With the exception of around 4 per cent of the US population, everybody else has already made up their mind. That has one giant implication – the winner will be the one who inspires the most people to turn out and vote for them.

Like any decent marketing team, both candidates’ strategy teams have run the numbers and then employed one of the oldest but most valuable planning tools of all – the buying process, which takes in the series of steps from ignorance to repeat purchase that ensure a brand’s success, or in this case a president’s election.

The winner will be the one who inspires the most people to turn out and vote for them

Both Obama and Romney have achieved 100 per cent awareness among the US electorate and each has around 48 per cent preference. That leaves only the third and deciding step in the process – the proportion of that 48 per cent of supporters who will actually go out and vote for their preferred candidate on 9 November. This election is not going to be decided by attitudes, it will be settled by behaviour.

Neither candidate is bothering to pander to their opposition’s base because they know they cannot win them over. Better to inspire and motivate their own base to ensure the best possible turn-out.

Johansson focused on the importance of young people voting because 15 per cent of the electorate is aged between 18 and 24 and 75 per cent of them prefer Obama. Simple maths tells you that three-quarters of 15 per cent is easier to achieve and will have more impact than trying to woo 4 per cent of undecided voters.

And that’s also why the Republican Party is suddenly so concerned with voter fraud. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, as many as 11 per cent of eligible voters do not have a Government-issued photo ID. Most of them are poor, elderly metro dwellers or African American and most would vote for Obama – if they were able to. But this looks increasingly unlikely given the unprecedented actions of the Republican Party in focusing on ID for voting.

The important lesson for marketers is that rarely does a strategy work without answering three key questions: Who is my target segment? What is my positioning to that segment? What is my objective on the buying process that will ensure success?

Sometimes you must create awareness. Sometimes it’s brand preference, frequently it’s about defending share by reinforcing existing perceptions and in some instances it might be about driving use or repeat purchase.

And as the presidential candidates are demonstrating, it’s not always the obvious stage in the process that delivers success.

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