What Marketers Can Learn From the 2012 Presidential Campaigns

Target, Adapt and Respond — and Don’t Forget Your Ground Game

Mr. Obama’s skillful deployment of social media in 2008 caused marketers to sit up and take notice. So what can brands learn from this year’s massive, sophisticated presidential campaigns?
Barack Obama after his acceptance speech in Chicago
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

 

Focus on your swing voters
Both the Romney and Obama campaigns spent the bulk of their media dollars in the battleground states including Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada (sometimes to the despair of the states’ overwhelmed residents). And they trained much of their fire on the undecideds. That applied even to the individual TV shows they bought. Both campaigns largely avoided placements during cable news shows, for example, whose audiences were more likely to have already decided who they were voting for. Local news broadcasts, on the other hand, indexed highest for independents who were more likely to turn out on Election Day, according to Scarborough.Who are your swing voters? The real value of mass media, and where the economics really make sense, is in drawing new consumers into your brand.

Remember your ground game
The Obama campaign said it made 125 million voter contacts, more than twice the total reported by Republicans, with more field offices in key areas than the Romney campaign and more personal outreach. Marketers would do well to remember that activation, promotion and personal touches go a long way in locking in the benefits of media spending.

Video still works
While 2008 was considered by many “the Facebook Election,” TV — or, more precisely, video — reasserted its strategic importance in 2012. Mr. Obama had a challenging platform to sell given the performance of the economy, but he did in most cases outspend Romney in TV, in many cases 2 to 1. We also saw a heavy shift of dollars into online video. Hulu revealed that election spending on the online video site was up 700% from the last election.

Hyper-local is the new black
Part of the appeal of online video is the ability to hyper-target, that is, the ability to pinpoint media and commercial messaging within a narrow catchment area. In Blacksburg, Va., for example, there are 30,000 students residing at Virginia Tech. The Obama campaign’s Hulu buys targeted the schools’ zip code with “Gotta Vote” spots to encourage students to register and turn out.

Broadcast advertising, too, was tailored to local issues. In Ohio, Mr. Obama’s campaign targeted blue-collar women by promoting its track record on jobs, whereas in Florida, the Romney campaign sought Cuban-American voters with hard-hitting TV commercials claiming Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez supported Mr. Obama’s policies. We saw local radio play a role, too, in this localization.

Are we as marketers really taking opportunity of localizing our media and messaging? Despite a lot of talk about targeting, many marketers still emphasize efficiency in spending over relevance to different customer segments and markets.

Adaptive marketing is rising
I’ve written previously about adaptive marketing, but both candidates just demonstrated its value again as they reacted to voter polls and feedback in nearly real time. And although all marketers listen to consumer responses, it was the speed and consistency with which both the Romney and Obama campaigns were able to respond that impressed me.

On multiple occasions we saw Mr. Romney test a message or storyline in a campaign rally speech. If it got a reaction from the audience, video spots would quickly follow online. If there was strong response online or pickup by cable news networks, the ads would appear on broadcast TV … all within a matter of days, often adjusting further as the campaign progressed.

Adaptive marketing doesn’t always require massive spending and machinery, either. Both candidates also expertly tapped into their advocates to push out tweets during the debates to reinforce key punctuation points to the base or counter comments by their opponent.

Long-form content can persuade 
A good showing in the first debate jolted Mr. Romney out of the doldrums and into contention. While he didn’t win in the end, he closed the gap sharply. Brands, for their part, don’t have to win an election; all they need to do is improve market share. What can be learnt from this? First, all brands have the opportunity to re-invent — or at least drive re-consideration — and it can happen quickly if done well. Second, long-form branded video content is a medium that is underused. Sure, the mass reach of a presidential debate and the subsequent news coverage isn’t available to brands. But deeper content outside of ad units can change opinions.

Negative ads are a negative
Negative advertising was a feature of both candidates’ campaigns, subjecting each candidate’s brand to a beating. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, negative ads between June and October accounted for 62.9% of spots, compared to 39.7% in 2008. I suspect that turned off voters and contributed to the apparent decline in voter turnout from 2008. I hope we don’t see this as a trend for brands in 2013.

Presidential elections are not just a boost to the coffers of the media companies, but serve as a benchmark for brands. For me, the next election can’t come soon enough.

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About Brand Media Strategy
This site is a resource for communications planners, brand marketers and media professionals. Brand Media Strategy [published by Advertising Age, Palgrave MacMillan] explains how brands today are employing advertising and media communication strategies to grow and build their brands. It explores the value of advertising in mass media; activation of digital media programs; and employing non-paid or non-traditional media vehicles. It's author is Antony Young, President of Water Cooler Group. A brand media communications company. http://www.watercoolergroup.biz

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