Want to Win Voters, Members or Media? Think iPod, Beer, Snack Food

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers."

Before entering the world of public policy marketing three years ago, I spent 18 years exclusively in the corporate and small business world creating and marketing consumer and business-to-business brands.

Wow. What a difference!

In the for-profit sector, marketers develop brands very carefully to own a unique position in a consumer's mind. They do this by creating products with distinct attributes in price, promotion, product and placement -- the "Four Ps."

The Four Ps have been marketing mix gospel for decades. The narrower your target market and thus brand definition, the more powerful your brand. Think Volvo versus Chevrolet. One stands for safety, the other... many things.

Yet, in Washington, many organizations fight for sameness. They purport to be the true representative of "all-American values" with red, white and blue colors and the shortest acronym possible. Their communication strategy is cluttered; they try to be all things to all people. In short, the General Motors of politics.

I suggest that many advocacy organizations could increase their influence by narrowing their focus and creating a distinct, defendable mental position in the minds of their target audience. They should invest strategic thinking into determining the emotional benefit their organization offers that distinguishes itself from its competition in what analysts call our "attention economy" (the result of the fact that, as Herbert Simon phrased it, "the rapid growth of information causes scarcity of attention").

Great brands create or lead a category, a much more profitable position than fighting on price discounts. Steve Jobs, for example, created multiple new products to satisfy what in marketing are referred to as unmet "need states." He didn't create a better CD or office software package, as Sony and Microsoft already owned that space. Instead, Apple created products no one had ever seen before.

iPod, iPhone and iPad compete in entirely new markets, which allowed Apple to avoid costly fights with entrenched competitors. You don't price compare when shopping for an Apple product but you often do when buying a commodity product. Product differentiation, first mover advantage and narrow brand focus make it difficult for competitors to displace Apple from its leadership role.

Successful, i.e., profitable brands grow by focusing their communication points on the emotional benefits. Think of the advertising you see from Apple, Starbucks and other premium brands -never a coupon. In order to be credible, the emotional benefits of the brand promise must be supported by "reasons to believe" (RTB) -- the tactics such as product quality and service that make a brand special. The beverage industry is well known for creating emotional connections for otherwise generic products. In a marketing sense, Corona beer's "find your beach" campaign encourages beer drinkers to find their "beach," wherever it may be, expanding the Corona brand positioning beyond the sun, sand and surf.

Another example is when I led the Poppers jalapeno snack marketing for Heinz foods. Research showed the emotional benefits of "youthful, upbeat, social, fun" which was supported by functional features / RTBs such as "fun shapes, party food, bite sized, indulgent." I created the slogan "Bring Home the Fun" to communicate the "enjoy anytime" nature of a "party in a box."

Similarly, political candidates, nonprofits and advocacy organizations can benefit from brand management. If you are a candidate for Congress and the biggest issue in your district is job creation, your communications materials should have a tight focus on that issue unless your opponent already is well known as the "jobs candidate." John McCain attempted to de-position Barack Obama as the youth candidate by adding Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election. McCain's plan faced an uphill battle, as President Obama had ownership of the "youthful" candidate position no matter how energetic Sarah Palin appeared. In order to defeat Obama, McCain needed to establish his own brand in an emotion more relevant to voters than "youthful" -- perhaps "job creation."

Successful candidates have a singular, clear, memorable position. Whether it's Reagan's quotes on the size of the government or Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid." Anybody remember what single-term President George H. W. Bush stood for?

A bad branding trap nonprofits, associations and government agencies fall into is overreliance on acronyms. What do NLRB, NRC, DNC or RNC mean to people unfamiliar with Washington DC politics? Nothing. I believe "progressive" and "conservative" are more powerful brand names than "Democrat" and "Republican." And could party leaders please rebrand away the donkey and elephant?

In 2010, I led the rebranding of the National Association of Manufacturers. The organization was identified by the acronym NAM (which sounds like Vietnam), red, white and blue colors and a tactical slogan ("The Americans who make things"). The new branding presented "The Manufacturers" with a modern blue color and a strategic slogan "Leading Innovation. Creating Opportunity. Pursuing Progress." The slogan was validated by visual references to statistics showing the United States remaining the world leader in manufacturing, significantly ahead of China and Japan. In this way The Manufacturers dispelled common misperceptions about the manufacturing brand, and when people say the name, thoughts of the Vietnam War will not come to mind.

Associations and nonprofits can benefit from the same exercise. Start with an unexploited niche, and lead with clear, focused, consistent communications. Small trade and professional organizations may see themselves as at a disadvantage versus the well-known lobbying groups but tighter positioning, when executed well, can provide advantages.