Framing Lessons from the 2012 Presidential Election
Brand executives can learn a lot from political professionals who exhibit creative brand building programs and then subject them to huge field tests. Consider the Obama campaign’s early decision to spend a good part of their budget on defining Romney. This money was expended before the conventions and some of it well before Romney wrapped up the nomination. There are a lot of reasons that Obama won the election, but many observers have hypothesized that this decision was key to the final result. The strategy was gutsy both because it took money away from the from the fall campaign and because it was uncertain that it would work.
The premise was that Romney was basing his campaign in part on the fact that the economy was in trouble, as it was, and that because of Romney’s experience at Bain he understood the private sector’s role in job creation and had experience as a problem solver. The Obama campaign’s challenge was to reframe Romney’s background at Bain as one that accepted risks that led to job destruction rather than job creation, an associated lack of sensitivity to the pain of the people losing jobs, and a business model that accepted or even encouraged outsourcing jobs to China.
Importantly, reframing Romney served to also frame both Obama and the issue of job creation. The narrative that Obama’s approach of using a government as a partner in job creation (by providing infrastructure and by saving GM and Chrysler) will result in more certain job creation was then supported. The campaign also intended to be leveraged in that the primary opponents of Romney were stimulated to pursue this framing task.
Brand strategists can learn from the Obama campaign. Negative ads can be very effective when there is a choice on the table. However, they are more effective when they are not ad hoc but part of a larger narrative that frames the competitor and the larger decision context. Further, reframing a competitor can be the best way to tell or support your own story.
Salesforce.com, an example of a brand that pursed a similar farming strategy, is credited with launching a new CRM software category, namely “software as a service” often referred to as “cloud computing.” The challenge was to gain acceptance of a system where the security of having crucial programs “in-house” is substituted with a system in which the programs reside in the “cloud” and to communicate the ease of installation, maintenance and upgrading with cloud computing as well as its security and reliability. How do you tell that story?
They chose to reframe the competition, Siebel and others, as old-fashioned, uninformed, and offering obsolete approaches in sharp contrast to the feisty forward-thinker, Salesforce.com. Toward that end, Salesforce.com pulled off several stunts to make the point. During a huge Siebel Users Group conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in February of 2000, Salesforce.com hired people to picket the hall with signs reading “Software is obsolete,” which referred to conventional enterprise software. Fake reporters provided hype. This stunt and others helped make their message newsworthy and led to extensive press coverage. A supporting ad showed the contrast between a vintage bi-plane (Siebel) and a modern jet fighter (Salesforce.com).
Of course, Salesforce.com was just delivering software in a different manner. But the “end of software” message graphically made the point that a new generation of software was here. During the ensuing decade, Salesforce.com created a 2.4-billion dollar firm, and it was their early reframing of the competitors that helped create crucial initial momentum.
Reframing your competition can affect the perception of their brand, put them on the defensive, support the narrative of your own brand, and frame the discussion. It can be so much more effective than trying to tell your story in a linear, conventional fashion, especially if it is complex. That was true for Salesforce.com in their early days, and it was true for Obama in 2012.
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