How to Sell Your Product: Tips from the Presidential Debates

Romney Managed to Reposition His Brand With Actions More Than Words

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When you consider the task of selecting the leader of the free world, you would think that a pretty rigorous analysis would be in order. But as voters few of us actually do that . We rely much less on facts than we care to admit or even realize. We generally default to how we feel about the candidates.

After each of the three presidential debates this year, for example, most public discussion wasn't focused on what the candidates said about issues. Instead, the chatter in the media, at the office and on Twitter about who won was much more concerned with how well each candidate had performed.

Mitt Romney repositioned himself during the first debate not so much by his content, but by actions and demeanor. While many had written him off because of President Obama's lead in the polls, Romney's confidence reinvigorated the perception of him as a viable candidate. Obama's demeanor achieved the opposite effect, as he appeared cautious and distracted.

Brands could learn from this, paying more attention to how they behave.

Too often, marketers get tangled up trying to ensure that consumers know every detail about their products or brand, thinking that the facts alone will differentiate their brand from a competitor. Unfortunately, human decision-making doesn't work that way, whether we are choosing a president or spaghetti sauce. Humans typically make decisions based on non-rational, and often subconscious influences; then they use facts to rationalize that decision. Instead of "a reason to believe," our creative briefs should ask what's "the reason for rationalization."

Neuroscience and psychology confirm that we're influenced by dueling parts of our brain, nicely articulated by Daniel Kahneman, in "Thinking, Fast and Slow." The fast part of the brain -- generally operating at the subconscious level -- is ready to make quick decisions, often influenced by inputs we're not aware of . This skill enabled early humans to quickly distinguish between a predator and that night's dinner, and it allows us to walk, chew gum and text at the same time -- without giving conscious thought to each activity. This fast, non-rational brain uses shortcuts -- "rules of thumb" -- to make decisions. When we have a "gut feeling" of what to do, it comes from this part of the brain. This is why brands exist. They provide the clues that take advantage of these mental shortcuts, allowing consumers to make quick purchase decisions without a laborious analysis of which spaghetti sauce to buy.

The second part of the brain is the slower, lazier, rational part. It operates at the conscious level, which means we're aware of its computations. We can do very few such activities at one time, which is why, when you're reading e-mail during a meeting, you will likely miss what is being said. This rational brain usually acquiesces to the non-rational brain for decision chores, because it takes a ton of energy to overrule it. Think about how hard it is for your rational brain to overrule the fast brain when you're reaching for the glazed donut in the break room.

In the political arena, because the facts are often so complex and nuanced, our fast brain is more than willing to intervene. Often it is influenced by cues that we're not consciously aware of or wouldn't necessarily take seriously, like someone's body language, or even seemingly meaningless factors such as how they look. Think about how many winning politicians today have facial hair.

The classic example of looks and behavior influencing an election is the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Though televised in black and white, a tanned Kennedy appeared healthy and confident, while Nixon, pale and suffering from a fever, seemed weak. While those that watched on television concluded that Kennedy had won, many who listened on radio thought Nixon had prevailed. Nixon's voice quality came across much stronger and definitive on radio than Kennedy's northeastern accent. While the same words were heard, the same facts delivered, the subconscious, fast brain gathered different information depending upon the medium that was used -- and ruled the decision-making process.

In marketing a product, behavior matters just as much. For instance, a package design that has no bullet points can be designed to convey more confidence than one that is overrun with every possible point of difference with the competition.

Given the evidence of how our brains work, you would think that more marketers would worry less about the facts, and remember that how a brand behaves in public is what will really separate it from the competition. That's a clear takeaway from the election debates.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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