Your Business Isn’t Running For President
I watch political contests with a marketer’s eye. I appreciate a good ad that reframes a weakness as a strength. I enjoy language that inspires, that answers objections, that shakes people from preconceptions and warms them up from cold prospect to warm "buyer" of the candidate.
But as the US presidential race ends today, I find myself thinking about the differences between marketing a business and marketing a candidate.
Here’s the biggie: a small business is going for dominance in a market niche. A candidate needs to win a majority of the votes.
While you can learn a lot about positioning and reframing from Obama and McCain, do not market your business as if you were trying to win an election. Yet most small businesses unconsciously do just that, trying to appeal to the entire market, rather than a narrow, well-defined segment.
You’re a Mirror – or an Eyesore
Every political candidate – and every business – succeeds in part by becoming a mirror for its supporters. We all want to buy – ideas and stuff – from people like us.
Sarah Palin generated a tsunami of enthusiasm from folks who saw their own lives in her story of average, small-town soccer mom. Men who couldn’t relate to Hillary Clinton suddenly felt a social kinship with this winking, colloquial-slinging mother of four.
Obama’s campaign has worked from the beginning to redefine the mirror of race, so Americans of all colors could see him as "like them." While I don’t have any proof, I’m convinced that the red, white and blue Obama portrait that I see on car windows is a conscious attempt by his campaign to transcend race, to make skin tone unimportant.
When you’re not a mirror, then you’re an eyesore. You become a different thing – not trustworthy, not friendly. The word "kind" is etymologically related to the word "kin." We must be related – at least emotionally – for us to share common values and interests.
You Can’t Be a Mirror to Everyone
First of all, you’d go nuts.
Just look at Microsoft struggling to be hip and cool to appeal to the Apple demographic. Not only isn’t it working, it’s actually backfiring by providing fodder for Apple’s marketing department and its loyal followers.
I’m guessing Microsoft has a bigger marketing budget than you have. If they can’t pull it off as a massive worldwide brand, I’m betting you can’t either.
Find the customers to whom you really are a mirror and focus your light and heat directly on them.
The most valuable thing about your business is not your physical assets, your employees, or your IP. Nope. It’s your good name.
That’s why the KFC recipe is kept in a vault to which only two people have the key (how do they make millions of buckets a day without the recipe, that’s what I want to know).
Brands matter. But the brand isn’t whatever you say it is. It’s what you say it is within the realm of the plausible. Mit Romney can pretend to be comfortable with rap culture, but the ridiculous footage of him talking about "bling bling" and "Who Let the Dogs Out" in an African-American neighborhood on Martin Luther Kind day made him a laughingstock and helped sink his campaign.
As my friend and business mentor Mark Hurst (founder of Creative Good) writes:
"The brand is what they tell their friends afterward."
In other words, all your marketing can’t hide the core truths about your business – its focus, its competence, and its personality.
When you try to be different than – or more than – you are, you lose the respect, not only of the group you’re trying to reach, but of your core demographic as well.
The other problem with trying to be all things to all people – as if being perceived as a say-anything panderer without a clue weren’t bad enough – is that it depletes your most valuable resources: time and focus.
McDonald’s learned this lesson after it acquired restaurant chains Boston Market, Chipotle Grill and Donato’s pizza. Even keeping the brands so separate in consumers’ minds that the public was unaware of McDonald’s corporate ownership of the other restaurants, the diffusion of focus proved too much for the mighty corporation.
In the past couple of years, McDonald’s has let go of all the non-burger-and-fries restaurants and returned to its core identity.
What’s your core identity? What is the one thing you want your customers to tell their friends? You’ll get tired of repeating it long before your customers and prospects get tired of hearing it.
Don’t Go Negative
It’s tempting in politics to "go negative," to focus more on what’s wrong with your opponent than what’s right with you.
And since the game is to win not just a solid market share, but an absolute majority, I grudgingly accept that negative campaigning has strategic value.
But in your business, going negative is not only ugly, but completely unnecessary. If you aspire to make your business "the best in the world" to a particular group of people, as Seth Godin recommends in "The Dip," then you have nothing to fear from competitors.
To the contrary, you welcome competition as a force that raises your standards and helps you develop into your best self, running your best business.
That attitude is infectuous. Because it’s about the customer, not about you. About service, not victory.
Let your marketing reflect your commitment to helping others, rather than helping yourself.
The best way to be self-serving in business is to serve others.
And who knows – if enough businesses start acting that way, maybe politics will change too :)
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BONUS BOP QUOTES
"Doesn’t have a point of view / Knows not where he’s going to / Isn’t he a bit like you and me?"
-John Lennon and Paul McCartney
"A politician is a statesman who approaches every question with an open mouth."
– Adlai Stevenson
"Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them."
– Lily Tomlin
"A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it."
– Oscar Levant
"Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy."
– George Carlin
"I have just learned that penguins are monogamous for life, which doesn’t really surprise me all that much because they all look exactly alike. It’s not like they’re going to meet a better looking penguin someday."
– Ellen DeGeneres
"Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"
– Groucho Marx