Ever since Bill Clinton wailed his sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show," presidential candidates have borrowed the high-impact, high-gloss marketing techniques from hot consumer brands. But Dean has taken the art to new political heights.
Witness his use of viral e-mail tactics to motivate grassroots support and his high-traffic Web site replete with its "Howard Dean for Iowa" virtual game and online store offering items like a "Dogs for Dean" calendar. Supporters have also ponied up funds for a candidate-branded Nascar car, reinforcing the Dr. Dean brand among blue-collars far from blueblood Vermont.
Dr. Dean is "clearly applying some of the principles and best practices of private sector advertising," said Gary Stibel, founder and principal of the New England Consulting Group.
"McCain was probably the first to make good use of the Web," said Leslie Dach, vice chairman of global PR independent Edelman and long-time Democratic campaign strategist, referring to Arizona Sen. John McCain's GOP nomination campaign four years ago. "But Dean has taken it to a whole new level in terms of building online communities. He's taken advantage of four years of increases in interactive marketing sophistication. He has the perfect message for the medium too, his message is about empowering people to take back the system and that resonates with the high-frequency Web user."
According to a Pew Research Center Study, Americans under 30 relied more on cable, the Internet and even comedy shows for political campaign information than on traditional media.
A year ago, a time when the Dean campaign was scratching for funds, campaign manager Joe Trippi-who had previously set up corporate Web sites-saw to it that the campaign's vibrant site was designed from the start to allow extensive marketing activities. He signed up savvy young Web designers and bloggers and bought placement on Google to ensure searches brought up the Dean campaign site.
The result was blog stories like last week's tale of the Dallas supporter named "Dot" who had her mini Cooper painted in red, white and blue as a "Deanie Cooper" and was driving the car to Iowa urging supporters to donate to the campaign. The site's "Howard Dean for Iowa" game lets supporters drop virtual supporters around Iowa then encourages them to e-mail or message real friends.
Ian Bogost, a partner in Persuasive Games, which developed the "Dean for Iowa Game" said one reason he came to the campaign with his game idea was because it seemed well ahead of others. "They were using the medium to extend beyond campaigning and seemed a fitting place for a viral game."
Thanks to the site, the campaign has raised far more money than any of Dean's rivals thought he could.
Experts believe Dean's campaign's tactics will be intensely studied and copied, not just by politicos but by traditional product marketers, in the years ahead. "It's no secret that some of the best research and best marketing is done in elections," said New England Consulting's Mr. Stibel.
That's not to say, however, all this smart marketing will get Dr. Dean elected. "His techniques have resonated with a certain type of supporter," said Mr. Dach. "If and when it comes to getting the critical 65-year-old voters on his side he'll need to go back to traditional tactics such as TV ads."
Added Mr. Dach: "All the money raised on the Internet is not being pumped back into the Internet, but will be spent on TV. That tells you something."