(This is the first post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)
I mentioned before that US Presidential Elections can be considered the most complex and advanced form of persuasive communication, and as such can offer an interesting framework of reference for brand advertising.
This is true for political campaigns in general, as they all share a number of defining and challenging requirements:
- the goal of influencing not just perception, but a specific user behaviour (or actually, two: voting v non voting, and the merit of the vote)
- a mix of functional and emotional needs and triggers
- a diverse audience
- the broadest media environment (earned, owned and all sorts of paid media you can think of, including the not-so-legal…)
- a direct, fierce competitive environment where there can only be one winner
- a deadline everyone works against
- a vast number of stakeholders and influencers
- inequalities in resources
- formal and informal rules to abide by
- a need to respond to unforeseeable and potentially game-changing events
- (I could go on, but I think 10 is a neat number)
Looking at the narrative and structure employed by political campaigns can provide an enlightening framework for businesses dealing with some of the issues above.
In their bookThe Spot (1992), Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates identify four phases of political advertising: ID spots; argument spots; attacks spots and what they call “I see an America” spots. (For each phase I’m showing examples from Obama 2008, as the best and most recent example of a candidate going from virtual unknown to frontrunner, and Apple, as the brand with the most strategically solid trajectory.)
ID spots introduce the candidate and establish an initial credibility and positional framework. They’re necessary to lay the ground for future communication, and we can consider them akin to brand ads. They’re particularly important for candidates (or brands) that have little name recognition and need to become popular enough to be taken seriously, or have slipped out of the public eye and need to reaffirm their saliency.
Argument spots introduce the candidate’s policies, ranging from broad statements to greater level of details, and can be (and usually are) tailored for specific communities and constituencies. We can consider them product ads.
Attacks spots are negative ads aimed at hurting other candidates, and they’re only introduced after a positive profile of the candidate has been established. The fundamental reason for this is that getting someone to reconsider support for candidate Y is only useful if they have an immediate, acceptable alternative in candidate X. They work in a very similar way to comparative ads.
Finally, the “I see an America” spots invite “viewers to visualize the country as it would be under the candidate’s presidency” (Craig Allen Smith, “Presidential Campaign Communication”). The purpose of the ads is at the same time to move the candidate beyond the phase of conflict making his victory seem so immediate and inevitable that it has already borne fruit, and to reconcile him with supporters of struggling rivals, offering them a future scenario they’d also feel comfortable in. This genre of ads is remarkably rare in brand communication, and rightly so given the mismatch between their ambition and the limited potential that any product has to change the future. However, there are cases of ambitions brands that come up visionary ads painting a portrait of the future and inviting us to step in: most of them are meaningless and easily dismissed, but every once in a while the combination of creative inspiration and an inch of credibility makes them stick.
What does this mean for brands?
First, it defies the recent marketing myth that states that brands should not talk about themselves, but about consumers instead. If people don’t know who you are or where you’re coming from, it’s very hard for them to grant credibility to anything you say or sell.
Second, it offers a trajectory for brands, and provides a framework to evaluate messages against.
For instance, it captures how Apple went through a phase of birth, decline and re-birth, and this explains why you see two visionary ads: 1984 came on the back of the first few years of success, and was meant to open Apple to a broader audience; the recent iPad 2 ad, while displaying the product, is fundamentally stating an inspiring and approachable brand vision that can make everyone feel welcome. It’s no coincidence it does so with its most ecumenical product, and it represents the culmination of Apple’s rebirth trajectory.
In the upcoming post I’ll use this framework to look at a number of other brands from different industries.