Political Brand Management – Going Negative

I generally tend to keep politics out of this blog, but I just read an interesting piece entitled “How Negative Advertising Works (and When It Doesn’t)” by John Quelch was included in this week’s issue of HBS Working Knowledge.  Since my comment on the article will likely be edited shortened (brevity is not my forte), I’m including it here with a couple of links to materials mentioned in my comment (because I can’t pass up a chance to plug my favorite author):

I think that the key here is this :

“Unlike politicians, companies hardly ever run negative ads. Pepsi ads don’t tear down Coke; they build the brand image of Pepsi. Why? Because a tit-for-tat war of words would turn off consumers of both brands. And sales growth, not just market share, is what puts money in shareholders’ pockets.”

David Foster Wallace wrote an essay included in “Consider the Lobster” that is about to be reissued as a book called “McCain’s Promise” in which he talked at length about the impetus for political incumbents to go negative – going negative effectively turns off voters, shrinking the potential voter pool and favoring the candidate with a strong brand and deep coffers. Since new voters generally support the ‘outsider’ candidate, going negative usually starts with the incumbent, putting the challenger in a lose/lose (look weak by not fighting back, or fight back and open yourself up to charges of having gone negative yourself).

Thus generally creating the ‘better of two evils’ situation in which people choose not to vote as a form of protest.  Which generally favors the incumbent, and allows even more money and effort to be spent on getting the party faithful out to the polls, because the undecided have been neutralized/disenfranchised/exhausted by the negative tedium of the campaign.  Which explains why the far right and far left hold so much sway in the political process despite most Americans self-identifying as moderate – most Americans also don’t vote, and those that can be counted on to vote are at the poles (pun half-intended).

As Professor Quelch notes, Coke and Pepsi would prefer to grow the market, not shrink it in order to destroy competitors and gain market share.  Even the Pepsi Challenge must have been somewhat welcomed by Coke, as its underlying message was “drink cola and find the one you like.”

One final sidenote – the Democratic primary this year is particularly interesting, as the ‘outsider’ candidate with less name/brand recognition has become the candidate with much deeper pockets.

4 responses to “Political Brand Management – Going Negative

  1. A couple of observations about ‘going negative’ as a strategy in politics and in business:

    1) All presidential candidates are senators, and congressional approval rating is an all time low – 13% – even lower then the president’s. This is a difficult low hanging fruit to avoid.

    2) The more that is known about the unknown candidates, the more they are associated with statement No. 1 above.

    We see this same approach in business marketing, meaning a focus on the negatives, especially something that can’t be changed overnight because it comes form a strength inherent to the company or it’s success:

    1) Big “Oil” – lately all you hear is negatives, never that they keep our lifestyles to the expected standard.

    2) Gun Industry – lately all you hear/see/read is negatives – when is the last time you saw a positive campaign.

    3) Big “Store” – all you see is negative campaigns, never that the low income family saves $1800 a year by spending there.

    Now these entities that are going negative would love to see political change, but their true motivation lies in the desire to destroy any positives a brand might have by using or building negatives in the mind of the consumer.

    Good Hunting.

  2. I don’t agree with his example of Coke v Pepsi. Every two or three years Pepsi takes a potshot at Coke.

    The last one I remember was a young boy trying to decide between a Pepsi and a Coke machine. After deliberation, the boy chooses Pepsi. While sampling the (inferior) soft drink, the boy then ambles into a guitar store sitting adjacent to the Pepsi machine. You suddenly hear “Purple Haze” float into the background, and you realize that the young boy was Jimi Hendrix. If he had decided on Coke, he would have walked into the adjacent Accordion store, changing the course of modern music, and probably making Weird Al Yankovic muck cooler than he is today. (Of course the Prof reps Pepsi, so he’s not going to admit any missteps.)

    “How to Drive Your Competition Crazy” by Guy Kawasaki is a great book about aggressive marketing (this is before Guy created “the Cult of Macintosh”).

    And don’t get me started on politics…

  3. Okay, first off, I’m sure you meant to say “making Weird Al Yankovic much more popular than he is today,” as there’s no way that he could ever be cooler. insert semi-sarcastic smiling smirking emoticon here.

    Pepsi, as the perennial laggard in the soft drink game, has taken a few potshots at Coke along the way, so it’s not the best example. The point is that they wouldn’t engage in a constant “the other guy sucks” negative campaign, as that would be bad for market share. And when Pepsi takes their shots, they’re often “look how much cooler we are” shots, rather than “look how bad the other guy sucks” shots (like the current Mac/Windows commercials). Apple can do this because their market share is so incredibly miniscule that going negative has more potential gains than potential backlash. You’ll rarely see two market leaders attacking each other in business marketing the way you see in political marketing – and with good reason – they’re different games with different goals (profit v victory).

    I’ll totally check out that Kawasaki book – thanks for the rec!

  4. Of course, you are totally correct about Weird Al…

    Seriously, I don’t have a point other than his choice of example could have been better.

    Frankly, I think Pepsi should call out Coke; Kind of like the way Mr. Pibb called out Dr. Pepper in the early 90’s. Or like the valiant attempt Mello Yellow made for market domination in the early 80s. I won’t even start about Royal Crown…

    Have a Zima on me!

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