Tag Archives: Communications

Three Marketing Lessons from The Realm of Politics

Silicon Valley marketing communications are, simply put, not the major league.  By comparison to Washington, DC and political communications, we are AAA baseball [1].  In fact, to be less kind, if DC communications are the major league, you could argue that consumer marketing is AAA, and we in Silicon Valley are only AA.  We play for the love of the game [2].

Without overstretching the metaphor, let’s try and agree to two things:

  • We aren’t the top league.
  • Therefore, we can learn from studying the leagues above us.

I study the higher leagues from time to time in this blog, e.g., by looking at consumer marketing cases such as the goosebump-inspiring Olay example in Playing to Win. But I generally refrain from studying political examples [3] for many reasons, mostly for fear that I’ll end up in political arguments when my actual point is to study marketing and communications techniques, and not whether I agree or disagree with what someone stands for and/or is saying.

For example, while I don’t necessarily agree with Frank Luntz’s politics, I have great respect for his work.  Words That Work [4] is a great book.  He’s amazing at linguistic reframing (e.g., climate change vs. global warming).  He relies on a heavily research- and data-driven approach to communications, including numerous focus groups that he often personally runs.  Like him or not, agree with his views or not, the man is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and he is good at what he does.

In that spirit, in today’s post, I’m going to discuss lessons marketers can learn from today’s political right.  I pick the right because I think they execute against three principles particularly well [5]:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the problem.
  • Framing is everything.
  • The power of consistency.

Demonstrate an Understanding of the Problem

Politicians know that the problem is safer ground than the solution.  Think: “I’m in favor of food for the hungry.”  It’s hard to disagree with that.  The devil, of course, is in the detail of how you want to do it. To illustrate this, let’s break down a marketing message into three parts:

  • Problem — describing the problem and its consequences, empathizing.
  • Solution — presenting the solution to the problem, naming and explaining.
  • Proof — providing evidence that the solution will work, typically via technical explanations and/or customer stories and references.

For example, let’s use this recent Trump CPAC excerpt (and we’re going to ignore the diction), break it down, and determine the percent of the lines used in each of those three areas:

Before Biden came into office, we had illegal immigration at a record low, refugees were at the lowest level in history. Human trafficking, women and children was at the lowest in 30 years. And drug dealers were finding the US border a very inhospitable place to be. It was very inhospitable. In my last year, less drugs came through the southern border than had been seen in many, many decades. We weren’t playing games. Now we have complete chaos. Fentanyl is pouring in. Families are being wiped out, destroyed, and there’s death everywhere, all caused by incompetence. Millions of illegal aliens are stampeding across our border. Interior enforcement has been shut down. Everyone is overstaying their visas. Nobody even thinks about reporting it anymore. My wonderful travel ban is gone. I had a travel ban, it was so wonderful.  Refugee numbers are through the roof. And spies and terrorists are infiltrating our country totally unchecked like never before.

When I’m back in the White House, the very first reconciliation bill I will sign will be for a massive increase in Border Patrol and a colossal increase in the number of ice deportation officers […] Under my leadership, we will use all necessary state, local, federal, and military resources to carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history. Other countries are emptying out their prisons, insane asylums and mental institutions and sending all of their problems right into their dumping ground, the USA. Think of it, they’re emptying out their prisons, and you’ve heard me say that, but they’re also emptying out their mental institutions and to use a strong couple of words, insane asylum.

Now, let’s analyze it:

  • Problem:  illegal immigrants, drugs, spies, refugees, other countries emptying prisons, insane asylums, and mental institutions into the US.  (58%)
  • Solution:  increase border patrol budget, largest deportation effort in history.  (21%)
  • Proof:  claims that problems were at record lows during prior tenure. (21%) [6]

The underlying logic:  if you don’t take the time to demonstrate an understanding of the problem and its impacts, then why would I care about your solution and how it might work?  Convince me you understand the problem, care about the problem, make me feel seen and heard, and then I might give you a chance to try and solve it.

Consider the rise of the viral country hit, Rich Men North of Richmond.  While we can demand solutions and proof from politicians, it’s not a reasonable ask for singers, so I won’t decompose the lyrics here.  I will, however, share two reactions from the target audience on understanding the problem:

“And just like that you became the voice of 40 or 50 million working men,” read one comment that received 11,000 likes.

“You’ve captured the anger, the angst, and the disbelief of every hard-working, law-abiding, patriotic American who can’t believe what our country has become.”

People outside the target audience have plenty to say, too but I won’t jump into that fray.  I will say that Oliver Anthony demonstrated an understanding of the problem to his audience.  That, plus a pretty husky singing voice, is how you rise to #1 on Apple, Spotify, and iTunes in just a few days.

Now, let’s zoom back to Silicon Valley and think about how a sales team might allocate their energy across problem/solution/proof.  Example (dramatized):

Problem:  yes, we’re aware of the problem with totaling some types of measures at the end of a period.  That’s called semi-additive measures, it’s common in OLAP systems, and for what it’s worth Excel doesn’t handle it well, either.

Solution:  the schmumbleator engine understands semi-additive measures and let me tell you how that works …

Proof:  we invented the schmumbleator after our founder graduated MIT and he decided to make an OLAP engine that used metadata to overload functions like TOTAL.  So, when the schmumbleator TOTALs an additive measure, the value for the year will be the sum of the four quarters, whereas when it TOTALs a semi-additive measure, like headcount, the value will not be the sum of the four quarters, but instead the period value for the fourth quarter.  By the way, this is kind of recursive because just like headcount is semi-additive across quarters of the year, it’s also semi-additive across months of the quarter, right?  Q1 headcount isn’t the sum of January through March, it’s just March.  The schmumbleator can do a lot of other interesting things as well.  I love telling people about the schmumbleator, …

What are we doing wrong here? Lots.

  • Not talking enough about the problem.  Is the customer convinced we understand the problem and that we understand its impacts?  Do we understand how the problem affects them personally?  Would the customer say, “they get me” at the end of this interaction?
  • Not talking about enough about the solution, either. 
  • Spending all our time talking about the proof.  Presumably, that’s what interests us — “wait, this is really cool” — if not the customer.
  • Offering only technical explanations as proof, not offering any stories about companies like theirs who also faced the problem, solved it with our product, and received benefits X, Y, and Z.
  • Speaking in technical language and jargon.  Something else a smart politician would never do, but all too common in Silicon Valley.

Thus, our first lesson:  spend more time demonstrating an understanding of the problem, its impacts, and empathizing with the customer.  Spend less time on proof — and offer the right kind of proof for the situation.  Sometimes proof means a deep technical explanation (so write a white paper), sometimes it’s a reference story, and sometimes it’s just a smiling, “that’s what we do here.”

Framing is Everything

Allow me to introduce Kellogg’s Two Rules of Communications:

  1. Framing is everything
  2. See rule 1

I somewhat arbitrarily break framing into three levels:

  • Issue:  what are we actually talking about?
  • Narrative:  what’s the bigger story in play?
  • Linguistic:  what words do we use to describe it?

Issue-level framing answers the question, what are we actually talking about?

  • Air-traffic controller working conditions or an oath?  (Reagan in the 1981 PATCO strike.)
  • A candidate’s age or experience?  (Reagan in the 1984 debate.  Yes, he was great at framing.)
  • Protecting life or the right to make one’s own medical decisions?  (You’re familiar with this one.)
  • The freedom to practice one’s religion or the right to discriminate against others?  (Ditto.)

In general, if you win the framing, you win the argument.  Issue-level framing works because — if you can get away with it — you split the issue into A vs. B where there is a fairly obvious choice between the two.  Examples:

  • Should people stick to their oaths?  Well, yes.  I think they should.
  • Should people be able to practice their chosen religion?  Well, yes.  I think the country was founded on that.

Narrative-level framing kicks it up a level.  It answers the question:  what’s the bigger story here?  Examples: 

  • All these indictments and investigations, they’re just part of an ongoing witch hunt designed to interfere with the 2024 election and prevent Trump from being president. 
  • This is really the story of a con man, someone who’s stiffed contractors, evaded taxes, and bankrupted casinos — someone who’d lie to you about the time of day just for the practice. [7]

Narrative-level framing works by ingesting every new story into a bigger narrative.  It moves the attention from the  individual story (e.g., Trump was indicted on 13 counts including racketeering) to the bigger, more favorably framed narrative.  And it can work:

He suggested Trump’s opponents are using the charges to impede his electability.  “They’re trying their very best they can to keep him from running,” Nannet said. “Because they know they can’t beat him.”

The idea is to string together a series of events into a bigger narrative so that each new story just feeds the narrative.  That allows you to respond consistently (see next rule) to the series of events, instead of making a specific response each time.

Linguistic-level framing answers the question, what words do we use to describe this? 

  • Gaming vs. gambling
  • Energy exploration vs. drilling
  • Death tax vs. estate tax
  • Obamacare vs. the ACA
  • Entitlements vs. social security [8]

To contrast, issue-level framing is about concepts:  is refusing to bake a cake an act of religious freedom or an act of discrimination?  Linguistic-level framing is simply about words.  People react differently to the same concept expressed with different words.  You can guess that a death tax is less popular than an estate tax, even if it’s the same thing.  You can guess that the reaction to Obamacare vs. the Affordable Care Act will be a function of Obama’s popularity ratings.  If you’re trying to rehab your industry’s reputation, gaming sounds a heck of a lot better than gambling.

How can we apply these framing lessons to Silicon Valley sales and marketing?  Let’s provide several examples:

  • “This is not about picking the best product today, it’s about picking the best vendor with whom to partner over the long-term.”  Reframes vendor as partner and reframes technological advantage as fleeting.  Used frequently by market leaders to dismiss startups.
  • “This is not about which vendor has feature X, it’s about which system delivers the best overall performance.”  Moves attention from a feature that you lack that is supposed to improve overall performance, and back onto overall performance.  The inverse also works when you have a differentiating feature.
  • “This is not just about compliance, it’s about security.”  Reframing that properly separates compliance from security.  You can comply with lots of standards and still have weak security.  People want both.
  • “While I know you were initially shopping for a financial planning system, don’t you want to integrate your sales plan with your financial plan, and thus shouldn’t you be looking for a system that does both?”  Reframing that moves the goal post.  If your competitor only offers financial planning and you win this argument, you win the deal.
  • “If you want data governance to be effective, you should not tell the user to go the data governance system, you should bring data governance to the point of user access.”  Reframes separate data governance systems as undesirable and frames integrated access and discovery as more desirable and more effective.
  • “The question isn’t the price of the yearly subscription, but the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the total return on investment (ROI)?”  Reframes from looking at subscription price to TCO and adds a focus on ROI.
  • “It’s not about features XYZ.  If you’re looking to solve problem A, then you need to be looking at features PDQ and let me tell you why.”  Reframes the product selection criteria around a specific problem and the feature requirements for solving it.

These examples are all issue-level framing.  Narrative-level reframing is usually used when it comes to corporate messaging around innovation (e.g., “GoodCo is once again setting the bar as part of our ongoing technology leadership”), ongoing disputes (e.g., “another example of BadCo making poor imitations of our products”), or rivalries (e.g., “this market continues to be a two-horse race”).

Linguistic framing examples are harder to find in Silicon Valley marketing.  I’ll mull on this more and share some if I find them [9].

The Power of Consistency

Let’s wrap up by discussing consistency [10].  Consistency matters across three dimensions:

  • Language.  We need to consistently use the same words to describe things (e.g., consistently say “witch hunt” and not use synonyms like “fishing expedition”).
  • Spokesperson.  Each spokesperson needs to communicate the same messages (e.g., if we send five spokespeople to cover the Sunday morning talk shows, they all need to communicate the same talking points).
  • Time.  You must stick with the same message over long periods of time.  You can’t get bored with your message before the entire audience has heard it — and heard it several times.  David Ogilvy reminds us: “you aren’t advertising to a standing army, you are advertising to a moving parade.” I think politicians are quicker to understand this than marketers [11], hence the notion of stump speech

In Silicon Valley, we are not very good at consistency:

  • Companies tend to change their messaging every 18 months.  This is a by-product of changing CMOs at the same rate.  There are two ways to fix this:  reduce turnover in the CMO position or challenge the need to change messaging with the arrival of each new CMO.  To me, it’s a huge red flag when a new CMO wants to rebrand simply to put their mark on the company.
  • Companies get bored with their messages before the customers do.  Example:  Tableau has been talking about building data culture for over a decade.  Chief data officers (CDO) list building data culture as a top-three priority.  Instead of seeing this as a long-unfulfilled need, some marketers will see data culture as “tired” and want to talk about something else.  That’s a mistake.  You should not get bored with your message before your customers do.  Ivory soap has been “99 and 44/100ths percent pure” since 1882[12]
  • Companies confuse strategic and tactical messaging.  The company’s message shouldn’t be the latest product launch or marketing campaign.  Those can and often should dominate the hero on your homepage.  But your company’s message should be on the about-us page, start with your origin story, and change little over time.  The easiest way to ensure consistency is to stratify your message with some parts changing fairly frequently and others not changing at all.
  • Companies are terrible with synonyms and naming.  Most startups have about 3-5 names for roughly the same thing. These pseudo-synonyms are often loosely defined and used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be.  For example, ask your EPM seller the difference between planning, budgeting, and modeling.  Or ask your DI vendor about the names and types of metadata.  Product marketers need to get control over this by draining the language swamp, defining terms, and training the company to repeat the standard terms in the standard way.  If this seems like too small a battle, go inspire yourself by listening to some recordings of sales calls. You’ll be starting a glossary by lunch.

In this post, I’ve discussed three important communications principles that I think politicians execute well, shown how you can see them at work every day if you’re looking, and demonstrated how to apply them to the world of Silicon Valley marketing and communications.

Those principles are:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the problem.   Don’t skip over this critical step in your rush to offer technical proof.
  • Framing is everything.  You can win deals by changing the customer’s view on what they should be buying.
  • The power of consistency.  Repetition works.  Pick a standard set of messages and words, train your team on them, and enforce standard usage.  Use this maxim to help: it’s better to be consistent than better.

Peace out.

# # #


While researching this post, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Alan Kelly, the only PR titan I know who, after crushing it in Silicon Valley (e.g., by putting Oracle on the map in the 1990s), decided to challenge himself, move to DC, and bring both his firm and his communications system to the major leagues. Ave atque vale.


[1] For my European friends, this is the soccer equivalent of premier league vs. championship in England or Ligue 1 vs. Ligue 2 in France

[2] Which I mistakenly took as the AA baseball motto, but in fact it’s the motto of the American Association of Professional Baseball, an independent professional baseball league.

[3] Exceptions:  Communications Lessons from Mayor Pete which I wrote after watching him do a town hall or The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing, inspired by watching Jackie Speier work a room.

[4] Right down to its subtitle:  It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.

[5] Which brings to mind the old Will Rogers quip: “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a democrat.”

[6] I’m also not going to drill into the extent to which these claims are supported.

[7] The fact that I knew exactly what to write in the first narrative and had to struggle coming up with second is a testament to my beliefs about execution, consistency, and the quip in note [5].  See this Tweet for a reference on the quote.

[8] I know entitlements is broader definitionally so they’re not really equivalent. However, note that social security and medicare/caid constitute the vast majority of entitlement spending.

[9] Every example I’ve thought of ends up actually being issue-level reframing.  I think it’s relatively rare when our arguments depend solely on the words chosen for expressing the exact same concept.  This can happen with feature naming and branding, but that’s not really the same thing.

[10] I call consistency one of the “three Cs” of communications:  clear, credible, and consistent.

[11] Put differently, do you ever wonder if Trump gets tired of saying “hoax” or “witch hunt”?  Using synonyms would be more refreshing for him.  But to drive the message home, it’s better to consistently repeat the same words. 

[12] Even inspiring the country song Pure Love with the chorus, “ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure love”.