Comparing Political And Retail Strategies

Editor’s Note:
This article is an excerpt from Schwartz’s book titled: Fast Shopper, Slow Store.

Many people in the business of connecting to retail customers are busy reworking their game plan. It may reassure the reader that no one is immune to digital disruption, which has left most industry folk, from brands to broadcasters, from publishers to politicians, questioning the way they engage with their audiences.

The 2012 U.S. presidential election was a perfect example of brands desperately seeking buyers. As the candidates claw for positioning, it is evident that the election process is (surprisingly or not) similar to selling a product in a hugely competitive retail market. Each electoral cycle demonstrates the challenge of courting an increasingly digital public.


The techniques that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used to market their platform and gather votes are the same as those embraced by brands to manage their market presence, build engagement, and move their audience to a sale. All the challenges of chasing the itinerant mobile public are the same as those facing bewildered shopkeepers.

Soapbox Politics

Products are bought based on their function or the service that they deliver, brand recall, brand loyalty, convenience, and, of course, price. The same holds true for the presidential race. The candidates all have something to sell: a product, a service and/or a price.

The product retailers are marketing is the brand. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign managers, for instance, tried to sell Romney the man, the father, the ex-governor, the future president, and the businessman. Companies and campaign managers can do this in a number of ways: by optimizing his camera appeal, wardrobe, personality, and ability to look good in a fifteen-second media sound bite.

The service they are offering is outlined in their platform: their policies, their ideas, and their vision. A campaign, like a retail store, is selling a product with an appealing exterior and the promise of a rewarding interior.

The price is the cost of implementing the service. There is a fine political dance of costs and benefits as politicians attempt to keep various — and often opposing — factions happy.

A candidate stands on a podium; a product sits on a shelf. Their quandary is the same.

In the case of retail there is a science to closing the sale. What shopkeepers and brands call the “path to purchase” explores the shopper’s experience — from the first time we hear a product jingle to the moment we bring the product home — and can involve everything from the $75 billion that is still spent annually on television advertising to recipes on YouTube videos to dog-eared coupons. This is the step-by-step process of moving possible customers to purchase (wherever that purchase may happen).

Path To Purchase (Interrupted?)

Closing a sale is key; it is all that really matters. A campaign team knows that whether it is packaging Romney or a household staple, all is for naught if it cannot move someone into the voting booth (or, in the case of a store, to a cash register). We need to convince the voter/shopper to select one product/candidate over another. We need him or her to make this decision at the ballot box — what brands call the “moment of truth.”

The biggest challenge for a brand trying to court and capture the mobile public is that buyers are no longer captive in stores. This is hugely inconvenient. If shoppers are not orbiting the storefront, where do you find them? If you do not know what path they are on, how can you post effective signs?

More Than Kissing Babies

So what builds a credible relationship with our audience? In 2012, this is what gets a president and a brand selected. These are the social CliffsNotes for any aspiring brand:

  • Think messaging. According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of smartphone owners open fewer than six apps per week. (Only 0.25% of voters used a political mobile app during the midterm election.) Do not get caught focusing on building comprehensive websites or applications. Focus on simple, personal channels.
  • Think targeting. Attention-challenged small-screen-using consumers need relevant, targeted communication. Know your audience. And, more important, make sure your audience feels you know them. (Rick Santorum was a poster child for this. He enabled each of his state teams to customize local messaging.)
  • Think authenticity. Move from politics 1.0 to 2.0 and join the conversation. (Obama’s NCAA basketball bracket challenge to voters will go further than Obama adopting a mobile photo app or Instagram. The former shows authenticity; the latter seems like trying too hard.)
  • Think screen. Screens have become the windows to our audience. The television in every living room is now the tablet in the bedroom and the handheld on the train. Each screen demands different messaging.
  • Think narrative. Voters are channel-indifferent. Move with them through the Web, various mobile devices, and live media appearances. Create a consistent message and a consistent engagement strategy.
  • Think frictionless. Count clicks to voter conversion. Our attention is constantly being pulled in different directions — we can’t be sold with layers of complex media, and we are averse to wasting our time filling out forms. Make all messages, surveys, and feedback opportunities actionable with a single click.

The key for politicians is to focus on mobile messaging, mobile engagement, mobile trust, and building a long-term relationship. For the brand this means it needs to get off the shelf and perhaps even leave the mall.

Schwartz_book_coverGary Schwartz, President of Impact Mobile, ran the first cross-carrier short code campaign in North America. In 2006, he founded the mobile committee for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and has worked to publish literature such as the Mobile Buyer’s Guide, helping extend the digital buy into mobile (for which he received an IAB award for industry excellence in 2009). In 2010, Schwartz was elected Chair of MEF North America with a remit to develop a mobile commerce practice to service brands, retailers and content owners (for which he received a MEF award for industry excellence). Schwartz is the recipient of the Asia and Japan Foundation Fellowship as well as the Macromedia People’s Choice Award and Dodge Foundation Award for Innovation. He authored the books: Fast Shopper, Slow Store; Click2K’Ching: The Mobile Shopper; and The Impulse Economy. Blog and twitter @impulseeconomy

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