Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson on bringing campaign tactics to brands

Joel Benenson is the only pollster to help win three US presidential elections for Democrat candidates, first with Bill Clinton then twice with Barack Obama, and he hopes to win a fourth with Hillary Clinton in 2016. He tells Marketing Week how both brands and politicians can tap into the ‘hidden architecture’ of public opinion.

Joel Benenson

Presidential elections in the US are notoriously punishing affairs. Beginning with the Democratic and Republican primaries – where each party’s candidate is chosen – and ending with the vote for the White House itself, campaigning stretches over 18 months and takes in nationwide tours, high-pressure TV debates and various forms of mud-slinging between, and within, the two sides.

Joel Benenson has become a pivotal figure in this hugely competitive arena. As chief pollster and strategist for Barack Obama in 2008, he helped the Democrats’ candidate sweep to power in what is widely considered to be one of the most impressive political campaigns in history. Having helped Obama win again in 2012, Benenson is now chief strategist for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign to succeed him.

Benenson also brings this rich experience to the world of brand marketing through his consultancy firm Benenson Strategy Group (BSG), part of WPP, though he admits the two fields have some striking differences.

“In politics, you don’t have a long period of time like you do in marketing to build up your brand image and reinforce it across many different touchpoints – you have to do it in a focused, concentrated period of time,” he says. “We tend to be very aggressive analytically. You have to develop a 360-degree view of the competitive landscape in order to navigate the right path to win.”

Next year’s election will once again see US politics enter a state of flux. Clinton is the favourite to succeed Obama as president but the emergence of candidates from outside the political mainstream – Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the Republican side, and Bernie Sanders on the Democrat side – mean her route to the White House is far from straightforward. That is where Benenson, with his acclaimed approach to market research and brand communications, comes in.

Language is king

When Marketing Week meets him in late November, he is paying a flying visit to the new London office of BSG. In addition to working with top-level politicians, parties and governments, the group advises blue-chip companies such as Campbell Soup Company, Pfizer, Toyota and Walmart, as well as non-profit advocacy groups.

But it is his work in politics, particularly with Obama, where Benenson has made his name. The victorious campaigns of 2008 and 2012 succeeded not just because of Obama’s messages of hope and change, but because of a rigorous market research operation that tapped voters’ attitudes and values and found new ways to communicate with them on a mass scale.

“We really differentiate ourselves [at BSG] through our expertise in language,” asserts Benenson. “We marry up our language expertise with very innovative research techniques to uncover what we call the ‘hidden architecture of opinion’.

“What are the underlying attitudes and values that shape the decision frame for any decision that people make? They come to the table with a set of values and attitudes that you have to connect with – otherwise you’re just delivering top-down communications and you miss the  mark completely.”

If this sounds a little technocratic, it is because Benenson is a big fan of academic theories – be they economic, anthropological or psychological – and these influence the way he speaks on many topics. But it is this studious approach that has also served Benenson so well in the upper echelons of American politics.

Finding the data ‘sweet spot’

Political commentators often note that Obama too is a deep-thinking strategist and a stickler for detail. In 2007, as senator for Illinois, he hired Benenson to provide the insights and direction that would support his positioning as the ‘change’ candidate who would fix America’s ‘broken’ politics.

Reporting to chief strategist David Axelrod, Benenson devised new ways of gauging public opinion and shaping political messages. They included using social media and other digital platforms to reach young voters and quickly raise campaign funds. The team compiled a huge database of voter intentions and attitudes and advertised Obama’s simple, positive message at both a local grassroots level and via the mass media.

Going into the Democratic primary in early 2008, Obama was the underdog behind Clinton, but his team’s focused, highly optimistic campaign began to shift the polls in his favour. “Exactly eight years ago at this time, experts were writing off Obama’s campaign,” recalls Benenson. “We had to stay confident and believe in what we were doing to win. That’s very different from saying ‘let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’. It’s about being true to your strategy.”

Obama carried this approach through to victory in 2008, but four years later the challenge was different. When the president faced off against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012, Obama’s ratings had slumped following the sluggish recovery in the US economy and political divisions over his healthcare reforms. Benenson had to find new ways of reconnecting with a disenchanted electorate.

It was here that he experimented with ‘long-form diaries’, a type of survey that involved asking a small sample of voters to write extensively about their day-to-day experiences, such as their jobs and personal finances. This ‘small data’ – namely, customised focus-group data – was combined with the ‘big data’ of the nationwide voter database to form the campaign’s strategy.

It is a recipe that Benenson believes brand marketers should also have more practice using, especially since the amount of big data available to companies today, as well as to the current Clinton campaign, is exponentially greater than during the Obama campaign in 2012.

“There’s a real need today to find that sweet spot between big data and small data – and I believe most companies aren’t doing that well enough yet,” says Benenson. “If you think about the big data we have, it’s all backwards-looking and behaviour-oriented, which is very valuable in some ways.

“But how do you communicate with that audience, what message keeps them loyal and how do you strengthen the bond with them? All the behavioural data in the world looking backwards won’t answer that question. That’s where you need the high-level strategic thinking to ask the right questions and to challenge assumptions.”

Rather than becoming swamped by this data and the tactical activations that it might encourage, Benenson urges all brands – whether political parties or corporations – to have a clear sense of what they stand for and their overall strategic goals.

“Brands talk a lot about their ‘north star’ but if you look at the way a lot of marketing is done in this day and age, brands are diluting themselves over and over again by trying to grab that next piece of real estate – that next target audience that they think they can persuade,” he suggests.

“Too many brands today are getting disconnected from their north star – the one thing that really makes them different from their competitors.”

Treating research as an ‘art form’

Benenson’s career trajectory has featured several sharp turns and tangents – a trait that he believes has informed his thinking about strategic challenges. Born and raised in New York, he studied theatre at the city’s Queens College and initially planned to pursue a career in acting. Looking for a more stable income, he became co-owner of a local beer distribution firm in his 20s and later moved into journalism.

Further job moves eventually took Benenson to advertising agency FCB, where he worked as a media consultant. He was at the firm for only a short time, working on the same account as the pollsters for then US president Bill Clinton, husband of Hillary, before joining the White House team for the 1996 election. Benenson opened his own strategic research consultancy  in 2000.

His present duties for Hillary Clinton’s campaign include devising the overall campaign strategy and message, poll commissioning and working with Clinton on her performance in the TV debates.

It is unlikely, though, that Benenson will be able to repeat the same election formula that worked so well for Obama. Although the incumbent president was widely seen as an accomplished and charismatic orator on the campaign trail, Clinton is often portrayed as cold or distant by the media and in public opinion polls. It is part of Benenson’s job to help Clinton engage with the electorate.

He believes his firm’s appreciation for language is one of its most important tools. It is a trait he has carried through his own career traversing the worlds of acting, journalism and advertising, and was a prominent feature of Obama’s successful campaigns. Crisp, clear and memorable slogans drove home the candidate’s values. It is an asset that Clinton will need to harness to resonate with the American public.

“I try to infuse at [BSG] a real appreciation for the rhythm and nuance of language, because words have real meaning to your audience,” he says. “If you use the wrong word, or you don’t understand what a word really means, it dilutes what you’re trying to say.”

Benenson also argues that an appreciation for language is vital to understanding an audience in both the political and business worlds. This requires brands to continually rethink their surveys and the questions they ask to ensure they are challenging assumptions and uncovering consumers’ implicit values and attitudes.

“The questionnaire is our art form – it’s a blank canvas where you can either be Picasso or you can be painting by numbers,” he declares. “Too many research firms – even those that call themselves strategic research firms – are painting by numbers. They’re asking the same questions, the same way, all the time.”

Target ‘intense’ attitudes

Benenson’s keen interest in human psychology shines through when talking about the values that determine how people respond to brand communications. He argues that few decisions are black and white as people often hold competing or conflicting beliefs. Among consumers, this could include rational considerations about price and the relative benefits of a product, or emotional feelings about a brand and its role in the consumer’s life.

Rather than seek to find the ‘average’ view of their audience, he urges brands to target the attitude that is most ‘sticky’ and most likely to drive a particular type of behaviour by a particular audience segment. “It’s about communicating around the right value – not something else that’s percolating there but that is significantly less intense or less important.

“We have ways of analysing data where we really focus on intensity. At my firm, we have never reported a mean – all means do is dilute intensity. It’s the antithesis of what you need to understand to be able to have more effective communication, because communication is about intensity.”

Benenson brings all of these philosophies to bear in the corporate world – often to ruthless effect. The website of BSG features various brand case studies that talk about marketing challenges in distinctly political terms, including an example of where a new line of Campbell’s soup had to “inoculate” itself from “attacks” by the competition by consolidating and expanding its market share. It is this combative, dog-eat-dog approach that draws many blue-chip CEOs to Benenson.

“One thing in common between politics and marketing is that your greatest strength can often be your greatest weakness,” he claims. “If you can identify that ahead of time – how you might be vulnerable to an attack and how you have to communicate in a way that puts a shield up around that – you can better protect your territory.”

Politics versus marketing

However, Benenson adds that there are also key differences between the two realms, such as the long-term brand building that takes place in the corporate world versus the short-term electioneering that occurs in politics. He notes too that unlike political candidates, corporate brands do not necessarily have to beat all of their competitors in order to ‘win’.

“If you’re number two in your category, you can be a very successful company,” he says. “In politics, if you’re second in your category, it just means you lost.”

Benenson’s insistence on strategic rigour is a universal mantra for politicians and marketers alike, though. He cites brands that he feels are successfully defining their competitive difference – BMW and Visa get name-checks – and others that are struggling or readjusting to changing market conditions.

“Look at Procter & Gamble – right now it is selling off 100 different brands and brand extensions, because it diluted a lot of brands,” he says. “You can’t have four different versions of the same toilet paper.”

Benenson claims that an ongoing willingness to learn and take on-board new ideas is vital to success in any field. This adaptability has defined him during a diverse career that has taken him to the very highest levels of politics and business. It is also a quality that Clinton will hope can power her to the White House in 2016.

“Albert Einstein once said ‘the only thing that gets in the way of my learning is my education’,” muses Benenson. “What he’s really saying is ‘don’t let your education constrict you’. Find new ways of thinking and new ways of opening up your mind.”

Benenson on the 2015 UK General Election

From the vantage point of Washington, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson has a unique perspective on how this year’s UK general election played out. The result, which saw the Conservative Party gain a 12-seat majority, took most domestic pollsters by surprise following months of predictions of a hung parliament. As it was, Labour lost seats to both the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party (SNP) and David Cameron had ample room to form a Tory government.

Benenson believes Labour failed to adjust to the emergence of multiple challengers for its votes. Unlike previous elections in which the party was primarily fighting the Tories, Labour faced a huge challenge from the SNP this year but failed to offer a coherent strategy for how it would defend its territory in Scotland.

By contrast, Benenson commends the Tories for targeting constituencies where they had the best chance of winning. He believes that under chief strategist Lynton Crosby, the party also had a better market research operation and more comprehensive voter data.

“They defined their battlefield very differently and targeted seats where they thought Labour would be vulnerable and that they could encroach upon,” he says. “They knew they had to win a majority because the other parties at that point would not have formed a government with them.

“How does that apply to marketers? Well, think about it in the same way. What’s your market share goal, how do you protect that territory and how do you expand strategically to get the customers you need to sustain that market share?”

Benenson argues that most UK pollsters got their predictions wrong because of an over reliance on national polls, rather than constituency-based polls. “The Tories won 37% of the vote and yet they won a majority of seats in parliament – do you know how hard it is to poll in that environment?” he says.

“The media should get a lot more suspicious about the plethora of polling out there. They ought to have a set of guidelines about what they do and do not report because most of those polls are really done to promote the name of the polling company, not to accurately assess where the electorate is.”