Presidential Campaign Underscored the Importance of Research and Positioning Simplicity and Consistency

Whether you were pleased or disappointed by the results of the recent presidential election, the campaign had much to tell us about positioning fundamentals. 

Good positioning, of course, successfully differentiates a product—or a candidate—from the competition. Good positioning should be simple, with the core benefit of the product/candidate focused on a single idea. A pharmaceutical brand whose positioning emphasizes “unparalleled safety” AND “broad efficacy,” for example, may provide customers with truths about your product; however, the multiple facts are at cross purposes when it comes to establishing a clear reason for targets to think about your brand; who is being targeted and why they should consider the product are not clear and does not cause the target to think you are talking to them.  (Is your drug the real safe product or the real effective one?  Do they know it is meant for them or do they think it is for other physicians that have this problem?)  With many attributes to focus on, perception gets complicated, and no single product benefit sticks in the target’s mind.

Volvo is an often cited paragon of a simple, singular, focused brand positioning.  When you think of Volvo—in spite of commercials and magazine ads that also touch on new styles and advanced power—a primary, simple message always comes through: “Safety.”  The safest car on the road. Simple, singular, focused.

Similarly, Barack Obama’s victory on Election Day shows how adherence to a consistently singular, simple positioning can work in politics. 

From early in his run for the White House—in the primaries against Hillary Clinton and then during the general election against John McCain—Obama’s positioning clung to one simple positioning idea:  Change. 

“Change We Can Believe In,” was the familiar mantra we all heard over and over ad nauseam.  Obama the Change Agent; he’s the one who would transform politics-as-usual.  Every time he addressed a crowd during the long campaign, Obama spoke from lecterns or stages usually decorated with signs or banners bearing the word “Change.” 

The message of change worked especially well for Obama in this campaign because it served double or even triple duty.  Not only did it refer to a desire for a transformation from the rancorous tone of general political discourse but it concretely and specifically echoed a desire for change from the status quo.

Further, the Obama campaign successfully did what marketers dread seeing their competition do to them—that is, position its competitors.  John McCain—and even Hillary Clinton—positioned themselves initially on the obvious benefit of their experience.  But for Obama, as the new kid on the block, it was a relatively easy task to refocus Clinton’s and McCain’s positioning in the minds of voters.  In contrast to his own newness as the embodiment of “change,” Obama almost obsessively yoked the “experience” positioning of his opponents in voters’ minds to the politics of the past, a contrast that became even starker as the economy began to unravel.

Moreover, as with any good positioning, Obama’s concept of change was not based on a feeling or mere guesswork or the majority vote of campaign handlers and consultants; it was arrived at through solid market research.  Ryan Lizza, writing in the New Yorker after the election, points out that, unlike his competitors’ research teams, Obama’s pollsters had been deeply involved in mid-term Congressional elections in 2006 and thus had become intimately familiar with prevailing moods among voters very early on. They discovered quickly how vehemently voters were fed up with Congress and with the Administration.

Also, Obama’s newness (and inexperience) simply did not represent the potential weakness that many pundits had imagined; instead, the market research showed, “Obama’s image [in the minds of potential voters] is considerably better defined than McCain’s, even on attributes at the core of McCain’s reputation [e.g., standing up to special interests, putting aside partisan politics to get things done, telling people what they need—and not what they want—to hear].” 

The stars lined up nicely for Obama in 2008—many feel that any Democrat couldn’t help but win in such an election year—but he, not his opponents, identified, validated and capitalized on the simple, singular positioning of “change” that would resonate most heartily in voters’ minds, a positioning he stuck with to the end.


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