Of politics, leadership, and marketing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  I’m quite enjoying it so far, having marked several passages for later reference, and have observed several links to other “things”.  For instance, in a few locations, Lessons from the Top quotes from John Kay‘s book Obliquity, which I read a couple of years ago (it’s silly, but I always get a little kick when all the things I read tend to form an interconnected web).

Additionally, I’ve seen some common themes between the lessons presented in this book and those outlined in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

For instance, in the chapter The Origin of Specious (ha!), Esler talks about how leaders across the ages have sought to embody a particular word or trait.  This is precisely the same advice as Ries and Trout present in their Law of Focus: “the most powerful concept in marketing is ‘owning’ a word in the prospect’s mind”.  How does this apply to leaders?  Consider the example of Ronald Reagan.  Quoting from an internal campaign memo written by Richard Darman, the assistant WhiteHouse chief of staff, Reagan’s overall storytelling strategy was to:

“Paint (Reagan) as the personification of all that is right with or heroized by America.  Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America’s idealized image of itself – where a vote against Reagan is in some subliminal sense , a vote against mythic ‘AMERICA'” (Lessons from the Top – p75, quoting a White House memo)

“Leave Mondale in a position where…a vote against Reagan…is a vote against…’AMERICA'” (Richard Darman)

Esler lists other leaders who have used this tactic, including Mussolini, Hirohito, Stalin, Churchill, Gaddafi, and Mandela.

More recently, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were competing for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, her advisers suggested that Obama’s “roots to basic American culture and values are at best limited” and added “Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and values” (although I guess it didn’t work out for her) (both quotes are from p75 of Lessons from the Top, quoting an internal memo from Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn).

Of course, the leader doesn’t have to personify the nation – he or she can be satisfied by personifying some glorious, enviable, respected trait (e.g., “strength”, “stability”, “change”, “hope”, etc.).  The keys are (a) to personify something that voters (preferably enough to win) value, and (b) to prevent the opponent(s) from personifying something (or, alternatively, to succeed in personifying them as something unseemly).

This shouldn’t be surprising; after all, politics nowadays (with a disenfranchised electorate) is really just marketing, so why should the tactics of politicians deviate from marketing’s proven laws?  Nevertheless, just seeing it written out (complete with more examples than I’ve repeated above) just seemed to make it more real (or more fake, I suppose).

Politics nowadays is really just marketing, so why shouldn’t the tactics of politicians align with marketing’s proven laws?


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Leadership, Marketing
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