Marketing Lessons from Hillary

While this is a business blog primarily about enterprise software, marketing, and content technologies, I do always like to keep the blinders off and look outside the immediate space for examples from which we can learn. For public relations (PR), there’s really one place to go: politics. I’m not here to take political positions; I’m here to study PR.

I thought I’d look at a quick, fun example from the Democratic presidential campaign.

I am a big believer that marketing always be logical and truthful. I assume the audience is intelligent and thus they will either explicitly identify contradictions in the story or, when such inconsistencies exist, simply walk away with a queasy feeling of confusion. Neither is what you want. So my rule on PR messaging is always be clear, direct, and logical.

I think Barack Obama’s team did a good job of identifying an in-hindsight-obvious inconsistency in Hillary Clinton’s recent Obama-for-VP messaging. The logic goes something like this:

  • You say I’m not ready to be president.
  • You say you might make me your vice presidential running mate.
  • But as vice president, I could become president in an instant (should anything happen to the president).
  • So how is it that I would be a good vice president again?
  • You then top this sound logic with a good sound bite — “I don’t know how somebody who’s in second place is offering the vice presidency to somebody who’s in first place” — and you’ve effectively jujistu-ed your opponent, using the energy in their attack against them.

In messaging, you need to take a position and stick to it. And you can’t build the position piecemeal, based on what sounds good at the time. You can’t logically argue that person A is not ready to be president, but argue that they should be vice president when the vice president can become president at any moment. As Larry the Cable Guy might say: that dog don’t hunt.

To avoid problems like this, I recommend a few things:

  • Build your messaging in blueprint form first — i.e., distill the key messages to a few message trees. It’s much easier to spot inconsistencies when looking at the message holistically and in distilled form.
  • While it’s still in a fairly early draft, show your messaging to your engineers. As a rule, engineers are great at identifying logical problems; they probably even enjoy it. This will cost you 6-12 pizzas depending on the size of your company and will be the best money you ever spent on marketing consulting.
  • If you can’t get the need for logic through some people’s heads, go find the smartest, most logical analysts in your space and hire them to tear apart your product marketing manager’s (PMM) presentations a few months before their launch. At BusinessObjects we hired Curt Monash to shred a few of the cockier folks at one point and I’m sure they’d attest there’s nothing quite like being shredded by someone who earned a PhD in game theory from Harvard at age 19. Better to be destroyed months before the launch in private than the week after in the press.

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