As someone who spent decades doing strategy and marketing, I have long held the view that the Obama administration was stupefyingly inept in its efforts to “sell” their policies and programs. Now I learn that I was wrong.
They never tried. It wasn’t ineptitude after all. It was a woefully wrong-headed belief on the part of President Obama that if he pursued programs designed to benefit Americans, the voting public would automatically see their merit and shower approval accordingly. Savvy enough to get himself elected President, he somehow went mind-bogglingly naïve when it came to selling and re-selling the value of his administration’s accomplishments. He says he has now repented of that naiveté, so here’s a brief refresher course in Marketing 101 for President Obama and his team.
Sir: When you want the allegiance, money, and support of people, you must put each one of them through a kind of manufacturing process that transforms the individual from raw material into an actual customer (read: volunteer, donor, voter). We do it in business all the time. My shorthand for this manufacturing process is AUPC. Let me break it down for you.
A=Awareness. The voters must become aware of what you are doing. Now, you haven’t lacked much “A”, because the press and your detractors jabber about you incessantly. Unfortunately, the detractors proved devilishly clever at creating deliberately false first impressions designed to generate doubt about the value of your initiatives. You need to pay much more attention to preemptively naming and positioning them in order to control that all-important first impression and defend against others’ redefinitions. And, when necessary, co-opt and transform their own words (Say: “I would be proud and content for the rest of my life if the term ‘Obamacare’ meant that 50,000,000 Americans and their descendants were no longer medical beggars and lived healthier lives because of what we did.”)
U=Understanding. You must create deep understanding about precisely what your initiatives actually do and, equally important, what they do not do. People hate uncertainty. In fact, they flee it. You will draw people toward you when they are confident that you will reduce their uncertainty almost to the vanishing point. This means not just laying out details. You must also challenge careless assumptions embedded in questions put to you (Say: “Wait a minute. Your question just assumed that $700 billion in tax relief to multi-millionaires will spur jobs. Explain how that works, won’t you? Because all the evidence I see indicates rich people mostly just buy more stocks and bonds, which is good for their portfolios but does absolutely nothing to grow employment. Do you see it differently? Well? Go ahead. We’re waiting.”) In this age of rampant disinformation and distortion by political opponents, the creation of understanding must employ a shrewd combination of explaining the truth and correcting all the misunderstandings.
P=Preference. To become your customers, people must come to prefer what you are offering to any and all the alternatives. Any. All. Including the status quo. Especially the status quo, which is always the most formidable competitor for any new initiative. Your prospective supporters must see your way as clearly the best. So you must explicitly compare your way to every alternative, including the intolerable status quo. Examples:
You might have legitimately warned that, absent a stimulus package, unemployment was likely to rise to the high-teens or low twenties. Then you might have told us that, with luck, your initiatives may be able to keep it in the low-to-mid teens by the end of 2010. In that context, today’s 9.6% would look like the heroic achievement it almost is.
Or how about a graphic portrayal of an America whose healthcare “system” is gobbling up 30-35% of GDP (entirely possible). Show the charts. How would our country look with so little left for economic activity that grows our commerce and wealth? What would be destroyed?
Every single initiative you have taken deserved to be explained and compared to its alternatives over and over and over and over and over again. And then some more. And then more after that. There is no such thing as over-communicating if—a huge “if”—you track people’s uncertainties and are aggressively reducing them. Remember: zero uncertainty is your goal.
C=Choice. The final step is to trigger a choice, to “ask for the order”. Your transforming the prospect into a supporter isn’t complete until you try to “close” the sale. Fortunately, you have lots of opportunities. Election day is just the most obvious. Long before that, you can ask people to communicate with Congress, or to donate money, or to support movements that support your initiatives. Until you prompt a choice, you can’t tell whether your prior steps—AUP—are working or not. And if your first attempts to close the sale don’t succeed, that simply means you have to think carefully about which of the earlier steps were ineffectual and then re-do them better.
That’s it. “Hope” worked fine for 2008, Mr. President, but you’ll need “AUPC” for 2012.