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Archive for November, 2008

The Political Marketplace

[Note: This was written for publication before the election. It runs here for the first time.]

For several years I’ve observed a battle waging between two distinct factions in American marketing. On the one side are those who believe in a top-down approach and on the other, those who embrace something more “bottom-up”.

To review, those who believe in a “Top-Down” approach use traditional methods – TV, print and radio – with the occasional foray into viral and other newer media. These are marketers who are, by and large, engaged in monologues with their customers – “I have something about me to tell you”. They also jealously guard the “meaning” of their brand.

The “Bottom-up” camp, on the other hand, are more active about engaging “alternative” media – SMS, text, viral, social networks, guerrilla, etc. These are marketers who tend to view their relationship with their consumers/customers as a conversation, involving give and take on both sides. Similarly, they tend to view their brand as somewhat fluid – precisely because of these conversations.

By and large you see this battle played out by which marketing efforts (and even which agencies) each side uses. But this year, Americans are in the unusual position of experiencing this battle on the Presidential stage as the two candidates – by word and by action – are demonstrating how they fall into one of the two camps.

John McCain, for example, has been widely criticized for his unfamiliarity with the internet (citing comments that he has his staff print out email for him and that he “watches” the internet whenever he can). This would seem to indicate that because he’s not web-savvy, he’s a “Top-down” marketer. But he truly demonstrates his “top-down” view in his policies. To take one example, McCain’s approach to the economy is to encourage big companies with tax cuts so they will create more jobs. In another era we called this “trickle down economics”. In marketing we call it “top-down”.

And Obama? Again, not only do his roots as a Community Organizer point clearly to his being in the “Bottom-Up” group, but so does his economic plan. By giving tax breaks to the broad majority of Americans, he is hoping to incent the consumer end of the market equation – to get money flowing through transactions within the economy. Retailers call this a “pull” tactic, and it is a hallmark of “bottom-up” marketers.

To be clear, I’m not arguing who’s right. Or even who’s left. Nor am I saying that the election of one will herald the demise of the other’s tactics. Rather, I’m pointing out that in both cases, actions speak louder than words. Or rather, that the media is no longer merely the message, it actually belies the way you wish to engage with others. Understanding that is crucial, whatever your politics.

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