Time is votes, and Democrats don’t have a lot of time | Opinion

November 16, 2021 7:00 am

Voters cast ballots at Brackett Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 2, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Five years before introducing its Cayenne SUV to the world, the German sportscar company Porsche hired me to help make their brand more family-friendly. Among the ads I worked on was one starring a young Kristen Stewart as a schoolgirl who kept missing the bus so she could catch a ride in her dad’s 911. (You can still find it on YouTube).

The early start gave Porsche time to tell a more advantageous brand story, and the new car was a success. That would be a good lesson for the Democrats as they look ahead with trepidation to the 2022 elections. Time is leverage in brand work. And for better or worse, today’s political parties behave a lot like big consumer brands. Exhibit A is the way all politics have become national.

The problem is that the political world doesn’t do long-term thinking very well. You can bet somewhere right now, in the midst of progressive hand-wringing over their shellacking in the recent off-year voting, a consultant is saying, “But the 2022 election is a year off and in politics that’s an eternity.”

No, a year is not an eternity.

But it may be enough time to give a political party some control over its own destiny. If it’s used to good effect.

I’d suggest the Democrats take advantage of all the time and money us marketers have spent learning how humans make decisions. It’s led to a paradigm shift. In the old model – the one political parties and campaigns still tend to follow – the human brain is an information-processing machine. Decision-making is highly rational. Getting the message across is everything.

Emotion got left out of the equation.

Turns out that’s exactly backwards. Emotions are more powerful than information in our decisions. That’s not as empty-headed as it might sound. Emotions are finely evolved mental shortcuts. The observations and experiences that might influence our choices get baked-in over time. Then rise to the surface as an emotional response. That saves us the need to go through a slow cognitive process for every decision.

Brands have evolved along with this new understanding, giving marketers a way to get ahead of the process and insert some influence. That’s why building a brand doesn’t happen overnight. It’s also the reason undoing one is hard. Legendary investor Warren Buffet describes a strong brand as a moat around a business. That would be useful for a political party, especially one certain to face a barrage of sneaky attack ads in the next election. Right?

Here are some examples of things worth saying.

  • We’re fighting to free America from a relentless pandemic, while Republicans only weaken her defenses and prolong the hardship.
  • We’re working to restore the trust that’s been broken between the community and the police, while Republicans flood the streets with guns.
  • We’re standing against the right-wing thought police who’ve attacked our kid’s schools, calling for books to be burned and threatening the safety of classrooms.

It’s a simple formula. Make it about “we” rather than “The Democrats.”

Make it about big things that connect emotionally. Defending the nation. Restoring trust. Protecting our kids. That’s more effective than arguing over the price tag on a spending bill or what is and is not Critical Race Theory.

Make it binary. On the one side, the party that still works for America. On the other, a party that seeks political advantage in keeping Americans poor, sick, powerless, ignorant and, most of all, afraid.

The party you can trust vs. the party of lies.

The Democrats have a rare opportunity to speak in these sorts of big brand truths. It’s made possible by an opposite party that’s devolved into more of a cult than anything one should trust with the reins of government. The more powerfully they can say that, and do it over time, the more likely it is to take hold at the emotional level.

That’s a lot of brand theory and even a little neuroscience packed into a few paragraphs. If you want to dig deeper, you’ll find much of it in a series of papers co-authored by Les Binet, who has the charming title Head of Effectiveness at a big London ad agency. You can watch him explain his work here.

One point in particular is worth quoting. “The way that you make marketing successful and profitable is not to focus on a small number of people and get them to really strongly engage with your brand. It is to talk to everyone…go really, really broad, and you get them to very slightly prefer your brand a bit.”

That translates nicely into political terms. You want a majority of the people to trust you with their vote, and to make that trust a subtle but enduring emotional response.

So while the party politics of the moment are fraught and complicated, the communications strategy is simple. Talk to the roughly two-thirds of Americans who have essentially been abandoned by the G.O.P. Do it consistently. Do it now.

It would require some organization at the top, and message discipline at the national, state and local levels. And execution counts. Money spent doing some TV that’s more likable than your typical political attack ad would be a smart investment. Hard. Not impossible.

It’s not the whole answer. But just like the way my old client used some foresight to pave the way for its first ever family vehicle, a better comms strategy now could help plant the seeds for electoral success in 2022.

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Sheldon Clay
Sheldon Clay

Clay is a long time member of the Twin Cities advertising community who has worked on national brands including Harley-Davidson and Porsche.