Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama or Clinton? Who or What?

From a marketing perspective there is an interesting difference between the communication campaigns of Obama and Hilary Clinton. Hilary has always emphasized her qualifications and WHAT she has achieved. Since she was a public figure long before the presidential race, her record is well known. On the other hand, Obama always emphasizes WHO he is - a child of mixed parentage, someone who has lived in different countries, and is keen on change. He is relatively new to public life and his record is both shorter than hers and less commonly known. Yet they are both neck-and-neck in the race - a clear indication that approaches have their appeal.

Personality branding is a big feature of building a corporate brand - more so when it is a challenger brand. The CEO's personality and values can be the sole differentiator for the company when the product is either too complex for the average user to understand or is basically commoditized. A services buyer - who cannot experience the service without purchasing it - looks for shorthand symbols of trust. And while some buyers will look for the CEO's track-record to arrive at this assessment, others will decide on the basis of whether the CEO has a firm handshake, looks them in the eye, and shares their values. So if you want to address the wider market, you have to figure out a way to talk to those who buy with their head AS WELL as those who buy with their heart...
Sounds contrary to rational economic behaviour? In Australia, there is a popular slogan "Be Australian, Buy Australian". Goods made in Australia are prominently labelled and retailed next to far cheaper imported goods. Yet, there are patriotic Aussies who pay the premium to support the local goods. Voting with their heart. The spouse of the senior politician wins the election after the politician has been assassinated - this is usually not because of what the person is, they rarely have a political track record - but because of who they are and what they symbolize. This is also the basis of stock indexes like the Dharma Index which research out companies with "good" values as defined by a certain cultural context. What you see happening here is that a qualitative layer of values is being added on top of the functional excellence of the service or product.

Many marketers tend to focus on the rational reasons to buy ignoring the softer ideological reasons. But in a mature services market, the basic competency is taken for granted. As the general quality of services rises and the complexity increases, "who" will play a increasingly larger role in customer decision-making.

I can hear some of you thinking "It shouldn't be so. Customers should focus on the track record". Well, possibly. And many decision-makers do. But this mindset is as retro as the old adage "build it and they will come". CEOs have now realized that one must also build a path to one's door. So in the same way I see CEOs of the future being more forthcoming about their values and intent - some of the very successful ones already are. And marketing will need to work on the new discipline of "personality marketing" hitherto the sole territory of pollsters, psephologists and election campaign specialists.

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