Political Triangulation Can Work for Marketers and Brands

How Mobilizing Base While Appealing to Mass Market Makes Gains

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Bryan Specht
Bryan Specht

President Barack Obama's widely praised State of the Union speech capped an impressive resurgence for the 44th president, whose approval ratings now stand around or above 50% in most polls after a year sagging well below that.

The speech -- much like just about everything Mr. Obama has done in the months since his party's November "shellacking" -- was a case study in triangulation. He defended his liberal base's belief in the need for government to invest in new infrastructure, education and technology, but co-opted traditional Republican talking points on spending cuts. He acknowledged flaws and suggested he's amenable to tweaks to his newly signed health-care law while signaling he was ready to fight to defend it. And, even before the speech, he somewhat stealthily repealed "don't ask, don't tell," something long sought on the left, but only after initiating a process in which military brass essentially suggested he do so.

If his recent approval ratings are any indication, the strategy is working nearly as well for Mr. Obama as it did for Bill Clinton after a challenging first congressional session in the early 1990s. And that success holds a lesson for brands and corporate reputations as well.

After all, in today's cluttered marketplace, marketing depends on triangulation: Brands need to mobilize their base -- those loyalists who boast about their offerings on Facebook and Twitter and to their friends -- while also appealing to the mass market to achieve the kind of sales and support brands chase today.

Most of the truly great brands out there have relied on triangulation to one extent of another, and at my agency, we're fortunate to work with two of the most successful: Southwest Airlines and Harley-Davidson.

Southwest is the ultimate challenger brand in its category, but as it has grown, it has had to make changes to its offerings to attract more business travelers, like shifting its popular Rapid Rewards program and offering priority seating to business-class travelers. But, while it's made these moves, it has aggressively communicated to its loyalists (and everyone else) the ways it is not mimicking other airlines, such as eschewing fees for changing flights or checking baggage, all the while reflecting the personality of its "base" brand loyalists. Southwest's growth has continued unabated, thanks in large part to its base of boosters, balanced with its broad appeal.

Harley-Davidson is another example of a brand that has, over time, retained its rebellious, free-spirited image even while it has established a dominant position within its category and achieved American-icon status far beyond the traditional biker crowd.

The same challenges and opportunities apply to corporate communications, particularly as it pertains to corporate-social-responsibility efforts. It's not always easy to communicate how you are helping both your planet and your shareholders. Yet global leaders have pulled off their own "commercial triangulation," such as General Electric through its brilliant "Ecomagination" campaign. Similarly, Coca-Cola just a few years ago was a magnet for activism on water issues, and today is global leader on water-conservation issues, while Coca-Cola's stock is also up compared with three years ago, despite the global economic crisis. The ultimate in operational triangulation? Reducing supply costs through conservation.

During the Clinton years, many critics decried triangulation as an instrument for watering down or compromising the president's agenda, but it's hard to find a historian who will tell you it didn't work. For brands with diverse constituencies and a dire need to continue exciting their base while always growing mainstream appeal, it's an ideal blueprint.

Bryan Specht, now chief operating officer at Dig Communications, has held senior communications roles in both Congress and the White House, having worked with President Bill Clinton, former Sens. Bill Bradley, Bob Kerrey, Paul Wellstone and Robert Torricelli, and former Rep. and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.
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