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4A's Conference

Carville and Matalin: Don't Let the Other Guy Brand You

If Competition Creates a Brand Narrative, Try not to Play Into It

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"Republicans need to tell Donald Trump to shut up and get off the stage," said political consultant James Carville at the 4A's Transformation conference.

James Carville, left, and Mary Matalin
James Carville, left, and Mary Matalin

Strong statements by Louisiana native Mr. Carville and his wife, political consultant Mary Matalin, set the tone for a lively panel on the impact of branding and marketing on the presidential campaign. Chris Weil, CEO of IPG's Momentum Worldwide, moderated the panel.

Ms. Matalin, a Republican, kicked off the panel with a statement describing Mitt Romney's campaign operation as "two cans and a string."

Republicans "didn't know what [they] were measuring," she said. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, "went deep." "They surrounded their target and dragged it out in ways no one saw."

Neither Ms. Matalin nor Mr. Carville worked on the presidential campaigns last year.

Too much?
One major lesson from both sides was that "you can do too much," Ms. Matalin said. "We spent billions on both sides and it resulted in cacophony. It was the combination of the way people received the info and the mundaneness of spice." Where advertising did break through was in "the kind of spots [marketers] call native advertising," she said.

While much of political campaign strategy is on par with that of a marketing campaign, she noted that she was struck by a difference between the two worlds. One moment in politics, such as an "I voted for it before I voted against it" moment, "can wipe us out," she said. It's those defining moments that politicians often "can't create," since they tend to happen organically, while marketers might have greater opportunity to create the moments on their own, she said.

Mr. Carville weighed in on the impact of those moments in politics. "If something happens that confirms an existing suspicion, that's really bad," he said. He referred to the situation in which Mr. Romney, during the presidential campaign, expressed amazement at WaWa's sandwich ordering technology -- something that played into perceptions of him as an out-of-touch millionaire, and an image Democrats were all too happy to run with. When the other side has crafted a product image for you, he noted, "you don't want a story that buttresses that."

He added that the way in which people use information today can inform a campaign media strategy. "Nobody watches Fox or NBC to find out what happened in the world. They watch to find out why their view is correct," he said. "They go for confirmation. People use information like a drunk uses a lamppost -- for support, not illumination."

When Mr. Weil asked if the panelists if they have advice from the campaign trail, Ms. Matalin reflected on the previous conference panel featuring Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes, who presented the case study for a recent online ad campaign featuring talking animals.

Now, she said, a campaign must be authentic, counterintuitive, witty and funny. And as in general-market marketing, she said, "Culture is moving politics; politics is not moving culture."

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