The M Word
One of the running jokes (not such a joke, of course) about the difference between conservatives and progressives is that progressive operatives all went to law school or studied political science, and conservatives all went to business school and studied marketing. There is a widespread aversion to “marketing” among my progressive comrades. Many share a belief that marketing is a dark art, tantamount to lying, aiming to manipulate unsuspecting “consumers” with no will of their own into spending scarce resources on useless objects that are poisonous to humans and the planet we inhabit.
And yet … those same progressives, no doubt, purchase — and treasure — all kinds of heavily marketed commercial products and services, and would be loathe to live without them. Count me in as a perhaps comedically coastal stereotype with brand loyalty to Apple, Whole Foods, and HBO. (I don’t dare name my car brand.) Another painful irony, of course, is that many progressive campaigns and organizations — and quite a few of our individual paychecks — are routinely funded by institutions and individuals whose wealth was built on marketing. (Extra points for anyone who can name the foundation whose fortune arose from the beloved frozen coffee cake of my youth. I don’t begrudge them a penny, and am grateful for their commitment to social justice.)
In the 1980s, I decided to get an MBA simply because I wanted people to stop asking me during job interviews how fast I typed (a routine hazard for female applicants in the Mad Men-like business culture that persisted until email became an office standard in the ‘90s). Perhaps I was brainwashed at B-school, but as a budding marketer, I was trained to listen to the audience first and build products, pricing, places of delivery, and promotional efforts that fit customers’ needs, desires, beliefs, habits, and willingness.
NYU’s Stern School of Business was a bastion of Wall Street back then: our curriculum didn’t include a lot about corporate social responsibility, and the concept of the triple bottom line had not yet been coined. But the SEC was beginning to crack down on crooks like Ivan Boesky, and as a Berkeley undergrad alum with a dog-eared copy of Das Kapital shoved firmly in the back pocket of my Levi 501s, I had no trouble distinguishing companies that operated ethically from those that didn’t. Later, as an entertainment marketing executive — my profession for 25 years — I wasn’t concerned with the audience’s consent; there were no magical persuasion tricks that suppressed a ticket buyer’s freedom of choice. Like Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If people don’t want to go to the picture, nobody can stop them.”
So I never felt that marketing was a dirty word. To me, it’s simply a strategic practice that can be useful. Very useful. Too many progressives think that strategy is a waste of time and money, when the opposite is true. We are a cash-strapped, action-oriented community and it’s counter-intuitive to pause and think when the world is on fire (quite literally these days), but strategy, marketing strategy in particular, is the most important investment we can make.
Politics is Marketing.
Few to none of our side’s influential campaign strategists have experience in commercial marketing. This is really problematic. And having a liberal-leaning corporate brand guru helicopter into a campaign in a temporary and advisory rather than permanent and decision-making role doesn’t fill progressives’ knowledge gap.
It’s easy to justify excluding marketing professionals from politics by saying that politics is different — everything depends on a single point of evaluation, and we have to win a 50% + 1 market share, but that’s pretty transparently just an excuse for ignoring something important because we’re not already experts in it. Entertainment marketing campaigns, for example, have similar rhythms and structural challenges to political campaigns: Election Day is analogous to a film’s opening day, an album’s debut, or a TV series premiere. You need to score when the time is right, or the opportunity will pass you by.
Marketing is often conflated with sales or advertising, but it is much more:
Marketing is based on thinking about the business in terms of customer needs and their satisfaction. Marketing differs from selling because (in the words of Harvard Business School’s retired professor of marketing Theodore C. Levitt) “Selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product. It is not concerned with the values that the exchange is all about. And it does not, as marketing invariably does, view the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs.” In other words, marketing has less to do with getting customers to pay for your product than it does with developing a demand for that product and fulfilling the customer’s needs. (source: Business Dictionary)
Imagine that paragraph’s lede was: “Marketing is based on thinking about the candidate in terms of voter needs and their satisfaction.” That alone could explain the difference between Hillary’s and Bernie’s 2016 runs (and I say that as a white-lady-of-a-certain-age who loved and labored hard for Hillary, but was not deaf, dumb, or blind about the enthusiasm gap).
Tricks of the Marketing Trade
Let’s assume we want to do good in the world, and that we believe progressive policies will result in better conditions for people and the earth we inhabit. What, specifically, can marketing offer us when it comes to winning progressive campaigns and causes? A lot! But let’s just focus on five key elements: strategy, branding, market research, story-based content, and coordinated engagement strategies.
Marketing strategy is all about understanding where you are and determining where you’re going. It should not be confused for a marketing plan, which lays out how you’re going to get from here to there. Strategy starts with a clear identification of the audience (who are we chartered to serve?), an honest inventory of one’s assets and resources (what do we have to offer the audience?), and a trenchant understanding of the competitive landscape (who and what are the alternatives to our offerings?). From there, the strategist builds a vision, mission, and principles to live by. Finally, we set the goals. It is only then that the action plan is built: who will do what and when, with what budget, on what timeline, and how are we going to measure success? Strategy sounds time consuming and like a lot of process, but it provides clarity and direction and without it, campaigns and causes struggle to spend their time, talent, and treasure wisely.
“Brand” is a wildly misunderstood concept. A brand is not a name, a product, or a logo (which, technically, is a “mark”). Neither is a brand a tagline … or even a Hope poster. In a private email to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Wendy Clark — then head of brand strategy for Pepsi and now CEO of DDB Worldwide wrote:
“No one would look at a red Target logo and think: design for all — fashionable yet affordable choices for my home and family — expect more, pay less. But [Target’s] relentless, contemporary, fashion-forward products and aligned messaging has imbued that logo with meaning just that.” (source: WikiLeaks)
David Ogilvy, the granddaddy of modern-day advertising, defined brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” At its most basic, brand is reputation. It’s what an honest campaign promises and delivers to the audience, and what the audience expects and believes is real and true.
Progressive campaigns and causes need to get serious about long-term commitments to brand strategy to ensure all communications have a consistent and cumulative impact. This is true for every presidential candidate, certainly, but it’s even more pressing for our institutions (hello, DNC) and for advocacy efforts that require shifts in long-held narratives, for example about race, gender, or bathrooms, or concepts like voting or even government itself (this last, in my opinion, is progressives’ single biggest brand crisis).
To have a proper brand strategy, campaigns and causes need to engage in a journey of self-discovery. In addition to the general strategy questions about mission, vision, and values, we need to ask ourselves: Who are we? Who does the audience perceive us to be? What do people who already love us think? What do people who hate us think? What are our attributes, features, and bugs? What is our personality and tone? How do we want any of those qualities and feelings to evolve? Like therapy, branding can be a challenging process that requires honesty, patience, and curiosity: about yourself and about your audience. Which brings us to …
3. Market Research
Private sector market research is different from the polling and message testing we are used to in politics and advocacy. We typically ask whether people agree with a statement, or prefer one choice over another, but to be useful and game-changing, our audience research needs to be more open-ended and go deeper than that to discover where the audience’s desires and dreams intersect with our brand. Our market research should use the tools of traditional quantitative and qualitative research — in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys, panels, polls — but augmented by methodologies such as big data analytics, cluster analysis, brain science, unconscious insights, and cultural and narrative analysis. Research should seek to discover what stories audiences tell, what stories they listen to, what unites them, and what separates them, and not simply assume that audience members all exist somewhere on a left-right binary. Research should go beyond demographics, voting behavior, and issue opinions to find out what’s truly resonant for different audience segments. And, crucially, research should be ongoing, including panels and longitudinal studies.
Netflix does not fixate on categories of age, gender or race. “We don’t pull demographic information because you would be in danger of imparting biases of what a 75-year-old Japanese grandmother would want to watch versus a 14-year-old kid from Ohio,” [Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy programming,] said. “But there are moments in time when they are in the exact same taste cluster. We see it all the time.” The Netflix system has more than 2,000 “taste clusters” that measure content by tone, timbre and feeling to predict what you will want to see when you log onto the site. Netflix places more emphasis on whether a show is uplifting, somber or redemptive than on genre or who the director is. (source: The Netflix Executives Who Bent Comedy to Their Will, The New York Times)
4. Story-based content
Storytelling is a more powerful driver of engagement and persuasion than talking points or traditional advertising. This has always been true, and if you don’t know that from the ashes of the 2016 presidential election or the meteoric rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then brain science can prove it (see Empathy, Neurochemistry and the Dramatic Arc, a short video from Dr. Paul Zak). Stories are more interesting than policy points, they build better relationships between the campaign and the audience, and, crucially, they are more memorable (22 times more memorable, to be specific). The power of story is that much more fundamental in today’s digital world where ad-blockers abound and anyone can escape a less-than-very-engaging message in a fraction of a second with virtually no effort. Audiences have to want to engage with content from a brand, campaign or cause; and story — specifically, connected storytelling — makes that happen.
And yet … because we are lawyers and policy wonks, not marketers or artists, we persist in boring our audiences to death with policies and “facts.” We complain that people vote against their economic self-interest and we fail to comprehend they are voting in their emotional self-interest.
5. Engagement strategies
Finally, whether we are concerned with winning near-term campaigns (Flip the House!) or achieving long-term societal changes (End Racism!), we need to deliver engagement strategies that are audience-centered and story-based. We must properly understand, invest in, and execute with excellence three different types of engagement strategies: strategic communications, grassroots organizing, and cultural organizing. To bring our brands to life, to achieve our goals, to win our campaigns and change our culture to one that is equitable, inclusive, and just, we cannot rely on single tactics or siloed efforts. It’s not just about producing and distributing great online videos, or just about deep canvassing and long-term relationship building at the grassroots, or just about involving artists and other creatives in our advocacy work … it’s all of the above.
Form is Function
Finally, not only do we have a knowledge gap on our side, our organizational structures are themselves barriers to success. Entertainment and brand marketing are set up dramatically differently from progressive campaigns and causes. And the principal difference is that marketing organizations attempt to integrate all aspects of reaching and persuading people, while campaigns continue to isolate all disciplines in impenetrable siloes. The form of the typical campaign is a serious impediment to its function.
Every movie studio or television network has a head of marketing who leads brand and campaign strategy, market research, and all of the different types of audience engagement practices. Marketing chiefs have counterparts who serve as heads of production or programming (responsible for making films and shows) and heads of distribution (responsible for getting films into theaters or, in the case of a network, onto a particular cable operator’s service). When I was head of marketing at an independent film distribution company, and later at a television network, I supervised a department of professionals as well as outside agencies, and together we delivered:
- brand strategy (for the company, including logos, program names, sub-brands);
- campaign strategy (for individual films or programs);
- market research (to determine the “playability” of films and shows, figure out how best to position and promote them to different audience segments, track audience interest and monitor results);
- creative services (producing trailers, TV spots, radio spots, posters, print ads, and collateral);
- media strategy (planning and buying TV, radio, print, and outdoor ads);
- publicity (media relations with national, local, and niche outlets that resulted in reviews, features and talent interviews);
- film festival strategy (pitching and placing films in global launch pads like the Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Telluride, New York, and Sundance Film Festivals);
- awards campaigns (for the Oscars, Golden Globes and more);
- promotion (book and music tie-ins, product partnerships, community and hobby groups);
- digital campaigns (though the bulk of my film and TV career was pre-social media, our company was the first-ever to show a film trailer on the web and build websites for each film); and
- field marketing (local publicity and promotion, place-based marketing and events).
Having this combination of practices within a single marketing team ensures alignment and complementarity on campaigns. Another benefit to the structure is that long-term teams develop systems, shorthand, institutional knowledge, expertise, relationships, and efficiencies that can be parlayed from campaign to campaign over time, and build a company’s long-term brand reputation. An added benefit is the ability to develop executive talent, the marketing leaders of tomorrow.
A typical entertainment company marketing department org structure:
Compare this structure with a typical campaign operation, where audience-engagement strategies like communications, paid media, field, and digital are treated as separate pods. All of these efforts report directly into the Campaign Manager, a team leader whose focus is divided by a wide range of unrelated responsibilities including operations, policy, and management of the candidate. Campaign teams are also temporary (by definition); and suffer from budgets that are unpredictable, late, and too often meagre. The campaign’s efforts are fractured, at risk of discordance, and, further, it becomes very difficult to grow strategic leadership talent from the ranks.
A typical political campaign org structure:
It’s even more challenging in the nonprofit sector, where most organizations have minimal, if any, communications staff or audience-engagement budgets. According to Guidestar, 66% of nonprofits have budgets of less than $1 million. In mission-driven organizations chartered to deliver programs and services to constituents, communications, culture, and content are considered a “nice to have,” not a “must have,” and rank behind fundraising and financial reporting as priority support functions to bolster core programs. The larger organizations that might actually be able to afford proper marketing infrastructure tend to be hospitals and universities, providing important educational and health services in our society, but not exactly the fount of progressive social change.
Policy and political change will not happen unless we are doing a better job of understanding our audiences and communicating with them. Marketing offers progressives the tools to do just that, but only if we properly understand it, invest in it, hire for it, and structure our campaigns and institutions to deliver it.
A good place to start might be to just stop hating the whole idea of marketing.