The Politics-Retail Connection

It is always at this juncture in the presidential primaries, when candidates are clawing for last minute positioning, that the election process is eerily similar to selling a product in the hugely competitive retail market.

All the techniques that Proctor & Gamble or Coca-Cola use to market their products and drive sales are (if unnaturally) the same as those embraced by the candidates in this year’s election. It’s an interesting comparison.

Let’s break down the retail ecosystem from manufacturing to final sale: Products are bought based on their function (or the service they deliver), brand recall, brand loyalty, convenience and, of course, price.


Now, let’s compare this to the current presidential race: The candidates all have something to sell: They have a product, a service and a price.

The product they are marketing is their selves. For example, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign officers are trying to sell Romney the man, the father, the ex-governor, the future president, etc. And they do this in a number of ways ― by optimizing his camera appeal, wardrobe, personality, ability to carve out a five-second media sound bite, etc. 

The service candidates are offering is outlined in their platforms: Their policies, ideas and visions. A campaign, like a retail store, is selling a recognized product with an appealing exterior, with the promise of a rewarding interior.

Finally, the price is the cost of implementing their service. There is a fine political dance of cost and benefit, as politicians attempt to please various – and often opposing – factions.

So how do they make the sale?

We know that brand marketing focuses on two things: “path to purchase” and in-store marketing. “Path to purchase” refers to the shopper’s experience ― from first awareness of the product to time of purchase ― and can involve things such as YouTube videos, jingles on television or radio, and coupons. This is the step-by-step process of moving the would-be customer into the store or online to purchase the goods.

That said, brands recognize that most people are impulse buyers. At home, consumers may write out shopping lists and do hours of product research, but in the store, the majority of their baskets are full of products bought on pure impulse. Obviously, brands seek to capitalize on this; they spend billions of dollars on advertising to make consumers feel comfortable with their brands. This builds brand recall, which encourages browsing shoppers to pick the advertised brand over one less known.

In the last few years, however, brands have been moving away from campaigns that lead to one-time encounters with their audience. Instead, are focusing on driving long-term engagement, seeking to foster more permanent consumer loyalty.

Politicians must do the same. mobile traffic has grown from 3% to nearly 8% over the last year. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showed that 25% used mobile in some manner to interact with the midterm election. Most of this is on social networks and peer-to-peer, and not tied directly to the candidates’ soap boxes.

Focus Strategies More Relevant To Digital Age 

Elections no longer can be won by “selling products” in the traditional way. But how can candidates work outside the “retail store” model and move voters into a trusted long-term relationship that will influence decisions at the polls in November? To begin ― and, more importantly, to compete ― they need to focus on strategies more relevant to this digital age. Here’s the advice I offer this year’s candidates:

Think messaging. According to the Pew Research Center data, 68% of smartphone owners open fewer than six apps per week. Only 0.25% of votes touched a political application in the midterm election. So, don’t focus on building comprehensive web sites or applications, but on simple, personal channels.

Think targeting. The attention-challenged small-screen-using consumer requires relevant, targeted communication. Know your audience. More importantly, make sure your audience feels you know them. For example, Santorum, though now out of the race, enabled each State team to customize local messaging.

Think authenticity. Move from politics 1.0 to 2.0 and join the conversation. For instance, Obama’s NCAA bracket challenge to voters will go further than Obama adopting Instagram; one shows authenticity while the latter communicates trying-too-hard.

Think cross-channel. Voters are channel agnostic. Move with them through the web, multiple mobile devices, and live media appearances. Create a consistent message and a consistent engagement strategy.

Think frictionless. Count clicks-to-voter conversion. Make all messages, surveys and feedback opportunities actionable with a single click. The public’s attention constantly is being pulled in different directions; we can’t be sold with layers of complex media, and we are averse to wasting time filling out forms.

In the end, the key is to focus on mobile messaging, mobile engagement, mobile trust and building a long-term relationship. In other words, get off the shelf!

Gary Schwartz is President of Impact Mobile and author of “The Impulse Economy: Understanding Mobile Shoppers & How They Buy,” published by Simon & Schuster.

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