‘What's in It for Me?' (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

by Craig Douglass  on Monday, Jul. 7, 2014 12:00 am  

Craig Douglass

Voters are political consumers. They make a purchasing decision with their votes. At every election, the political consumer decides whether or not to buy what the candidate is selling. If they like what they see and hear, they vote for it. If not, they either don’t show up at the polls or, if they do, they vote against it.

And, like retail consumers, voters are swayed by the proposition of “what’s in it for me.” They are, as visceral beings, less moved by the factual features of what the candidate is selling than they are by the emotional benefits. Features and benefits, the balance of which is an important key to sales and marketing success, are concepts that when used in a political context can trump ideology or party affiliation.

Political marketing can learn from retail or corporate marketing strategies. The recent Republican runoff in Mississippi’s U.S. Senate race is a case in point.

In Mississippi you had a situation where the long-time, 76-year-old U.S. Senate incumbent, Thad Cochran, was effectively challenged by a Tea Party upstart named Chris McDaniel. McDaniel forced Cochran into a runoff. It seems, as with most Tea Party-challenged incumbent Republican officeholders, a great deal of effort and resources were spent trying to out-conservative the other conservative. Cochran, prior to the runoff, focused primarily on his conservative bona fides, espousing the mantra of less taxes leading to less spending resulting in less government. (“Starving the beast,” as our conservative brethren like to say.) The primary strategy didn’t work. And when aging incumbents are forced into a runoff, the outcome, more often than not, is defeat. Mississippi on June 24 was an exception. (Just as was Arkansas in June 1972 when Sen. John McClellan, also age 76, defeated David Pryor in that summer’s U.S. Senate runoff.)

Collective wisdom and voting analysis are still taking place. However, a growing body of opinion, mine included, has determined that pivoting from conservative ideology, reactionary in nature, to the benefits of Cochran’s tenure for the state of Mississippi ended up winning the day. It was almost like staying with a brand that was tried and true, consumer confidence resulting in customer loyalty.

Messaging in marketing and politics sometimes assumes a level of sophisticated knowledge on behalf of the consumer that simply doesn’t exist. We’ll discuss the reasons for that another time. What is important now is to emphasize that marketers and candidates must strive to talk to everyone on their level, based on the notion of “what’s in it for them.” In the Mississippi example, it was what benefitted Mississippians regardless of ideological bent or party affiliation. And those benefits included the fact that Cochran’s service facilitated a disproportionate amount of federal money flowing to Mississippi, helping Mississippi business, industry and education, rather than a message focusing on repealing Obamacare, cutting federal aid, railing against the EPA and the like.

Cochran’s strategy in the runoff stressed, of all things, government benefits. The benefits to Mississippi of federal dollars for shipbuilding along the Gulf, seven Air Force, Army and Navy military bases, agricultural subsidies in the Delta, funds for education and even food stamps. (It reminds me of a valued client who had little use for the advertising awards we won for his business. He said at one meeting, “I don’t care about those awards. But if they’re handing them out, I want mine!”)

Democrats (those who had not voted in the Democratic primary) apparently crossed over to vote in the Republican runoff. Why? Because if the federal government is handing out the benefits, they wanted theirs. And Cochran convinced them he had provided and would deliver. It was “what’s in it for me.” Cochran won the runoff by around 7,000 votes.

How consumers are spoken to and what messages are used determine their preference, whether at the retail store or in the voting booth. Subsequent political campaigns may look to the Mississippi example and that of U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-New York, to a 23rd term as guides to effectively selling the benefits of incumbency.

Craig Douglass is an advertising agency owner and marketing and research consultant. He is president of Little Rock-based Craig Douglass Communications Inc. Email him at Craig@CraigDouglass.com.



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