Marketing lessons from the US presidential elections

A week before the American public votes for a president, Marketing Week looks at all the political tools brands can use to make sure they outsmart their opponents.

Americans go to the polls on 6 November to vote in either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as President. After months of gruelling campaigning, the winner will claim that his victory represents a clear choice by the people for a certain set of policies and a vision for the future.

But whoever gets into the White House will also owe his triumph to a huge, mass media marketing effort. Both sides have poured millions of dollars into their respective campaigns, flooding the airwaves with adverts and touring the nation in a bid to inspire voters.

So what can brands learn from the battle for hearts and minds that rages at election time? Do political tactics strengthen brands or simply turn consumers off?

Standing for something

Obama famously campaigned under a theme of hope during his election campaign in 2008 using the slogan ‘Change we can believe in’ but has struggled to generate the same wave of enthusiasm this time around. The incumbent’s fall in popularity over the past four years has been linked to his failure to meet the huge expectations set by his soaring rhetoric at the start of his presidency.

This is a cautionary tale for all brands that fail to live up to their core values. In October, for example, following the news of an 12 per cent fall in profits at Tesco, commentators were quick to claim that the supermarket giant is losing ground to rivals that have taken a clearer stance on price or quality. It hired Wieden + Kennedy to help it regain popularity – and is hoping shoppers will vote with their feet in a positive way.

Richard Murfitt, head of brand marketing at Just Eat, believes brands can set themselves apart in their market by offering a stark, politically-inspired choice to customers. In September, the online takeaway brand relaunched itself with a deliberately self-confident TV spot that urges people to avoid cooking at home in favour of ordering takeaways.

“The idea of being inspired by politics is interesting because it means you’re focusing on a particular issue or idea and that’s where the notion of being the anti-cooking rebels came from,” explains Murfitt. “We’re rejecting the whole convention of having to whip up cordon bleu meals at home and giving a voice to the millions of Brits who want to have a night off.”

Just Eat is now considering potential guerrilla marketing stunts and other activity to attract more attention (see Q&A here). Murfitt argues that this brash, tongue-in-cheek approach is a good way of engaging with an audience.

“It divides opinion but the great thing about that is people are then talking about you and having a debate,” he says. “So rather than being apathetic or indifferent to your brand, people will either like or dislike you.”


Marmite is one brand that has made the most of its ability to polarise opinion. In 2010, it applied its divisive reputation to a political context when it set up faux ‘love’ and ‘hate’ political parties to coincide with the run-up to the UK general election. Each party had its own presence on Facebook and even a party political broadcast video.

The spoof Marmite election encouraged a wide audience to engage with the brand, regardless of their feelings towards the product. The Love Party won – though only narrowly – after nearly 40,000 people voted. Marmite continued to align itself with headline-grabbing national events this year when it ran corgi-inspired advertisements during the Diamond Jubilee under the strapline ‘One Either Loves It Or One Hates It’. This will continue with its sponsorship of the Oxford Street Christmas lights – where people will be able to upload ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ photos of themselves via an app, which will then appear on a screen above Selfridges.

Political campaigning isn’t necessarily about dividing opinion, of course, but it is about communicating with an audience. During this year’s US election battle, the Republicans have sought to project the idea that Romney is a safe pair of hands for the country’s economy by using clear and concise business language in their campaigning: “The country needs a CEO”; Romney has a “five-point plan” for kick-starting the economy and so on (see brand Obama vs brand Romney here).

Straight-talking soundbite

Using language in this way isn’t new: in the 1930s, Franklin D Roosevelt summarised his entire economic policy with the term ‘the New Deal’. This kind of snappy soundbite provides an election campaign with an easily identifiable message and a focal point around which party activists can work. It’s not surprising, then, that many charitable organisations also adopt straight-talking terminology to further their causes.

That includes Prostate Cancer UK, which changed its name from the Prostate Cancer Charity in June. The rebranding process has included the launch of a new manifesto (written as MANifesto) in which the organisation has set out a blueprint for a major expansion of its activities, including a significant uplift in fundraising and lobbying.

Director of communications Seamus O’Farrell says the organisation is aiming to increase awareness about what it does by operating more politically and less like a typical charity (see case study here). “Men are as much under threat from prostate cancer as women are from breast cancer but there’s little understanding of that among the public,” he explains.

“So our reach among men with prostate cancer needs to quintuple over the next two to three years. The point is we have a great service, we just haven’t given it to enough people and we’re not helping enough men.”

In order to project this newfound sense of urgency, the organisation has “distilled” its brand values into a much clearer, more dramatic message. “In the past, we have mollycoddled men with our handling of this disease,” says O’Farrell. “It was almost as though we were providing an emasculated representation of men – in the images we used, they were never shown on their own and were always talking to a doctor with a lady sitting next to them.

“The language also focused on people and families rather than men. So we’ve decided to man-up. Men are at the centre of what we do and they have had a raw deal when it comes to health, particularly prostate cancer. We’ve got to be a much stronger representative for and of men.”

Prostate Cancer UK is planning a major marketing push to support its new positioning. According to O’Farrell, the organisation is aiming to spend £2m on TV, press, radio and digital campaigns before the end of the current financial year. It will also use social media – something that the presidential campaigns are also relying on.

Social campaigns

The US election is a huge business all on its own, with each party racing to outspend the other on mass media advertising. But in 2008, Obama stole a march on his Republican rival by finding success on social media. His campaign was so successful at mobilising support that it led Wired magazine to suggest that it might have been the greatest election campaign ever.

According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the 2008 campaign undermined the myth that Facebook advertising is effective only at reaching younger people. It found that a third of the 30 million Facebook members who did not opt out of the targeted political ad system were over 30 years old and 3.3 million were over 40.

Although social media can help election campaigns to go viral, they also leave politicians vulnerable to attack or ridicule. For example, following Romney’s clumsy claim during a TV debate last month that he had looked at “binders full of women” in an effort to recruit more female workers to his team, the hashtag #bindersfullofwomen quickly trended on Twitter, serving to amplify the gaffe.

The benefits of social media are well known to brands, as are the dangers. In September, Waitrose was left as red-faced as Romney after it attempted to drive Twitter conversations by asking consumers to complete the sentence “I love shopping at Waitrose because…” Instead of receiving glowing tributes, the supermarket chain was inundated with sarcastic responses that gleefully mocked the brand.

However, marketers remain divided about whether the Waitrose campaign will actually harm the brand, with some insiders claiming it was ultimately a worthwhile publicity generator that won’t deter the retailer’s core customers. Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson thinks the effect won’t be huge, but it will be negative and self-inflicted.

Meeting the public

Despite the growing popularity of digital communication channels, political parties continue to travel out into the regions and engage with voters face to face. In recent weeks, both Obama and Romney have been out in force in the so-called swing states, making speeches and glad-handing potential voters.

The roadshow approach is also favoured by brands that want to spread their message among customers at a grassroots level. This summer, Fairtrade coffee brand Percol took to the road as part of the Gastro Alfresco tour of the UK. Run by specialist roadshow agency Brand Belief, the tour visited Tesco Express stores around the country between July and September.


Niomi Taylor, marketing manager at Percol, says the intention was to raise brand awareness and win new customers. “We’re currently the number one Fairtrade coffee brand in the UK but the awareness has been lacking,” she says. “So it was a case of getting the brand out there, getting people to try it and initiating a trial purchase. Many of our customers are very loyal so it’s just that first step that we’ve struggled with in the past. This has been the perfect platform to do that.”

Taylor explains that the roadshow format enabled the brand to engage in direct conversations with customers, helping it to generate a large amount of customer data and feedback.

“For a brand our size it’s always very difficult for us to get our hands on that kind of data,” she says. “So that was another reason we wanted to do the roadshow.

“From the customer’s point of view there’s a lot of sampling that goes on at supermarkets, so it makes a big difference when the sampling staff really know what they’re talking about and can explain the product to consumers.”

Percol calculates that on average it saw an uptake in sales of between 300 and 400 per cent at the stores it visited.

Stick to the script

One of the more bizarre sights from this year’s US election was Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in August. The skit was intended to be a humorous take on Obama’s perceived absenteeism as president, but was widely received as a somewhat embarrassing, rambling speech that made the Grand Old Party look a bit silly.

Eastwood later complained that the Republicans only had themselves to blame for allowing him to talk off the cuff to a potential audience of millions, and to be fair he had a point. Today’s politicians are so well-drilled that any slip-up in front of the world’s media is regarded as unacceptable, which makes it surprising that the party would have taken such a gamble with Eastwood.

Brand spokespeople are expected to follow a script in much the same way. Particular responsibility rests with chief executives, who must speak up for their brands while simultaneously showing diplomacy and discretion in their public relations.

When they go off-script, the brand often suffers heavily. For example, when the former boss of BP Tony Hayward admitted at the height of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster two years ago that “I’d like my life back” he made a PR disaster for the company much worse. Like a president or prime minister, a CEO must appear relatable and ‘human’ while also protecting and promoting their brand’s core values.

With all these pressures to balance, it’s not surprising that politicians are increasingly testing new communication channels. In August, Obama held an ‘ask me anything’ session on social news website Reddit. The session, which resulted in an all-time traffic record for the site, allowed the president to interact directly with voters while remaining protected by the shield of cyberspace.

More and more brands are coming round to this approach to engagement, noting that the greatest challenge lies in winning over the disenfranchised – be they voters or customers. As a result of the Reddit session, for example, the Obama camp told the Los Angeles Times that more than 25,000 people had registered to vote, including at least one 98-year-old.

Perhaps this could be a way for brands and businesses to get closer to people – although marketers and chief executives may need to learn how to appear slick and super informed when exposed in this way.

Lead picture (above): Channel 4