OP-ED: Seeking votes and building brands have much in common

As the 2004 political campaign begins in earnest, it is helpful to look at what good corporate communications and good political communications have in common. Good companies organize and execute like candidates seeking votes, and elected officials operate much like companies vying for brand loyalty.

As the 2004 political campaign begins in earnest, it is helpful to look at what good corporate communications and good political communications have in common. Good companies organize and execute like candidates seeking votes, and elected officials operate much like companies vying for brand loyalty.

Consider President George W. Bush. Regardless of whether you are Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, it is hard to argue with the White House's historic domestic popularity and its string of political successes. And a big part of that success is their adherence to the same good brand communications strategies that have guided some of our most successful corporations.

First, they focus on their "core customer." George W. learned from his father's mistake - never neglect your core customer. The first President Bush was swept into office as the inheritor of eight years of Republican rule. But his relationship with the party's core customer, conservatives, quickly soured when in the midst of a spiraling budget deficit, he did the unthinkable - he raised taxes. Conservatives howled, became disenfranchised, and it contributed heavily to a one-term presidency.

By contrast, the George W. team does a masterful job of nurturing, cultivating, and endearing itself to their "core" followers: social and religious conservatives. From judicial nominations to faith-based initiatives, the White House team never forgets whose support got them into office and whose will be needed to keep them there. George W. even speaks the language of his audience, talking in parables and reminding us "we're all sinners." The result: a core of unwavering conservative social and religious devotees that rivals the following of the great Gipper himself.

Good companies do the same. Southwest Airlines is the ideal company for its core customer: the small entrepreneur trying to close a sale or the budget-conscious family visiting relatives. And they have a laser-like focus on those things that keep them happy. What are they? Predictably low fares, on-time departures, easy Internet bookings, and a "fun" approach to customer relations. Like George W., Southwest never forgets who got them where they are. In return, Southwest gets loyal customers along with something rare in the airline industry - profitability.

Second, they stay on offense. One need only spend a few minutes watching a John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condi Rice press conference to understand the style of the George W. White House: offense. Although this "in your face" approach rubs against the grain of pundits at home and American allies overseas, it has been instrumental in the President's ability to build and maintain political support. From tax policy to the war on terror, the Bush White House is on message and on the attack. They never "negotiate against themselves" and often succeed because competitors are simply worn down by their constant pursuit of their policy objectives.

Compare that to two of the world's most successful companies - Wal-Mart and Microsoft. Although they make money in different ways, their approach is the same: stay aggressive, stay on offense, and never back down. Both dominate their sectors and neither is a stranger to controversy. But competitors challenge them at their own risk. Indeed, many experts cite Wal-Mart and Microsoft's relentless (some would say fanatical) and aggressive nature as key to their success.

Third, they occasionally do the unexpected. Few associate Republican conservatives with foreign assistance or HIV/AIDS prevention. So more than a few were surprised when President George Bush in last year's State of the Union proposed one of the most ambitious efforts ever to stem the explosive growth of HIV/AIDS in the African continent. Of course, it was the right thing to do, but it also endeared the President to constituencies that would otherwise oppose him. Pundits and opponents applauded. Democrats were put in the position of rallying around a Republican initiative. And it provided cover against allegations that the administration was uncaring and unengaged in humanitarian assistance abroad.

Corporations also use unanticipated actions to keep competitors off-stride and to open markets and opportunities for the brand. When multinational oil company British Petroleum began touting the dangers of global warming, it took both the industry and consumers by surprise. By doing something different and completely unexpected, BP breathed new life into brand, positioned itself at the forefront of its industry, and endeared itself to public officials, interest groups, and consumers. More importantly, however, the campaign allowed the company to open up channels of communications with groups that were heretofore corporate adversaries.

These keys to the political success of "Brand Bush" are in striking parallel to the elements that drive our most successful brands. One admonition: as stated in every business prospectus, past performance is no guarantee of future success. The coming months will test whether "Brand Bush" can continue its dominance of the political marketplace.

  • Jerry Johnson heads the Washington, DC office of Brodeur Worldwide.

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