I am unsure of many things in this election season, perhaps most of all who will actually become our next president. But the unveiling of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential pick has convinced me of one thing: Following the basic rules of marketing is essential in the political world.
Consider the trajectory of sentiment following the Palin announcement. In a matter of days – it seemed – she was immediately pilloried (Democratic strategists claiming it took the “experience card” out of play), then hoisted up as the savior of the conservative movement (due to a well-received speech, which highlighted elements of her life and policies that appealed to conservatives). Initially seen as a liability, Palin has revived McCain's campaign, which, it seems, couldn't have scripted it better.
Contrast the Palin pick with Microsoft's recent ad featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates. Microsoft likely believed that the pair's star wattage in a lighthearted ad would either cause bemusement or, at worst, little interest.
But critics have been brutal. One claims the portrayal of Gates as billionaire-cum-discount-shopper is offensive to those in a struggling economy. The ad is intended as a rejoinder to Apple's successful (if annoying) Mac vs. PC ads.
While it is hard to truly predict how a campaign (or a VP pick) will do once it reaches the great unpredictable masses, there are some keys to which any organization (or political campaign) should adhere:
• Brand consistency. It has become clear that McCain picked Palin to shore up the base of the GOP establishment that has won the party the past two elections: Evangelicals and conservative Christians. The Republican brand still very much depends on the support of this constituency and before McCain's announcement there was not much talk of the base being “energized.”
Conversely, Microsoft's established branding message has long been that of an industry titan. No one is suggesting Microsoft expects one irreverent ad to change a perception, but the ad was bound to be scrutinized as it was positioned as the linchpin of a $300 million campaign. Given issues with Vista and competition from Chrome, the company should focus on marketing what made it such a powerhouse, not chase the elusive coolness factor.
• Demonstrable intent. Palin's stated credentials had very practical inducements for the base. Her family, outsider status, pro-life stance, and Christian faith all were touchstones that would, again, “energize” various subsets of conservatives. There is not a clear call-to-action behind Microsoft's ad. We get that it's trying to be “cool,” but it doesn't help consumers understand Vista nor does it convey the company's business goals to investors.
Corporate America often looks to the election season for case studies. The choice of Palin is a good start.