VOTERS TOLD POLS: IMPROVE THE BRAND

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While there have been many reasons given for the Republican landslide last November, it all really comes down to the fact that government had lost touch with consumers in the same way brands fail in the marketplace. Voters have always made demands of politicians: They want commitment, they want decisive action, and they weren't getting it. They want deliberation from leaders who have an agenda and they want "fearsome respect" to attend the office of the president.

Voters have come to dislike Clinton's inability to command that respect. They couldn't vote him out, so they voted in a Republican Congress.

Perhaps if politicians, like smart brand marketers, treated Government as a brand, they would have been in less trouble in the last election. Like the lessons learned from the introduction of New Coke in 1986, politicians could have realized that brands are shared between the maker and the user, and that, in the '90s, the voting public can get mighty angry if the social contract between the maker and the user is messed with. More than ever, Americans last November indicated a desperate longing for a charismatic, decisive leader that they feel acts in their interests. As a result, they elected a government whose members' main appeal has become simply that they are anything but politicians. In other words, a government by the people as well as for the people.

Maybe voters are asking too much from a government system that just cannot deliver in today's world. Consider: In 1992, historian Arthur Schlesinger hypothesized that the American political mood evolves in 30-year cycles, swinging from conservatism to liberalism and back again. But consider the last three years, from 1991, when George Bush's approval ratings were at historic highs, to Bill Clinton's election, to the recent Republican landslide. Evidence indicates we are operating under 30-week, or possibly even 30-day cycles.

Why is this? It could be posited that voters are getting more and more information, they're getting it real time and it's information they don't like. Voters can now see waffling from Washington in living color, courtesy of C-SPAN, and daily evidence of the inability of government bureaucracy to move fast enough to address their concerns. The immediacy of news delivery has given voters the ability to respond decisively with collective force as never before.

It could be said that a major contributor to all this is the ubiquitous microprocessor that has transformed how people work and live. By enabling technology that captures information (like video cameras) available to mass consumers, to technology that compiles and distributes information (like computers), the ubiquitous chip has caused the incredibly rapid democratization of information.

As increasingly powerful technology, at increasingly lower cost, gives individuals the ability to get information on demand, and to communicate collectively (such as via the Internet), it would behoove marketers, like politicians, to pay greater attention to what consumers want and don't want imposed on them, and to respond fast enough to address consumers' real needs. We are reminded constantly that in today's consumer market, the rules are being re-written by consumers themselves, and companies that do not adjust to this new reality do so at their peril.

There are some striking similarities between the public's repudiation of Democratic politics and the way brands are being marketed to the public.

In recent years, politicians have been marketed and packaged like products, where the packaging has become more important than the person. Brand managers could do well studying the dynamics of current politics, where products (such as microprocessors) are being held more accountable for what they are rather than how they're packaged.

In the same way voters want their politicians to lead them, consumers more and more want leadership and responsiveness from marketers of products they buy. Consumers are facing an unprecedented amount of product sales messages directed at them in ever more personalized ways. And the expanding variety of new products available is reaching the point of overkill, making it difficult for consumers to make considered brand decisions.

In this environment, buying decisions are made by default to the strongest known brands they have come to trust. So it is critical for established brands to retain that trust, and more important for weaker or newer brands to be perceived as simply different, rather than a little bit better than other brands in their category if they are to be noticed at all. Consumers desire direction on what products are the best to buy. They will need to be directed what to do in the consumer "promise" of advertising, and advertisers will have to remember that the word "promise" means a commitment to the consumer.

As the pace of technology increases, marketing windows of opportunity decrease, which will demand a new way of thinking and behaving to survive, let alone win.

Mr. Kerr is account director at CKS Partners in Campbell, Calif.

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