September 09, 2008

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The Palin Parable The choice of Sarah "Barracuda" Palin as the GOP "Trophy Vice" candidate has set off the most intense and creative political debate in my lifetime. John McCain's gambit short circuited Obama's post-convention momentum, shifted the terms of debate, refocused and energized our examination of the issues and brought huge numbers of people off the bench and into the rhetorical, if not political, fray. This move has six profound lessons for marketers. We Can Still be Surprised. America's new favorite hockey mom was a bolt from the great white North which caught us all unaware. But Sarah's ascendance immediately provoked strong reactions so much so that feminists were caught on both sides of every nuance. Its life affirming that somebody other than Apple can instantly capture the attention and imagination of our our post-modern, cynical, seen-it-all citizenry. There's always a market for something new and something different. Success depends on timing and packaging. Attack Existing Assumptions. Ms Palin's origins and pedigree crosscut all our notions about the national political elite. She's a small town girl out of the far west with a bachelor's degree from a former land grant college. No eastern or western coastal sophistication, no Ivy League politesse, no old-money, political dynasty or WASP lineage. Add to that a so-so dye job, the wrong eyewear and cheap shoes and you begin to understand why she provokes such a visceral reaction both pro and con. Maybe if she were the same girl from an Ohio political dynasty with a Harvard degree, we'd react differently. We have preconceived notions about things. New data is compared and processed against preconceptions, which are usually subconscious and unarticulated, and either squared up with them or rejected. In this context you can understand why we default to moose jokes. Account for the Decision-making Process. The choice of Sarah Palin might just be the greatest test of Malcolm Gladwell's blink theory in which he argues that snap decisions can be as good as and often better than more deliberate and rational choices. When fly-boy McCain revisited the maverick instincts of his youth in picking this unknown, he moved fast and relied on his gut more so than a team of vetting agents. Given the performance history of all the properly vetted bozos we've endured over the years, it will be interesting to see how things turn out. Consumers/Voters make snap decisions with equal speed and deliberation in a majority of the choices they face. If you don't anticipate and prepare for this dynamic you miss the chance to persuade them. Perceptions Can Be Manipulated. Have you noticed how effective highly charged words (liberal, right-winger, right-to-lifer) are in the political arena? Did you see how in one fell swoop a party of old pasty uncaring, indifferent , elite white fat cats was transformed into a young vibrant army of PTA-attending, child nurturing, tax reducing Sam's Club Republicans? Labels and slogans matter. They are the short-hand tools that drive public debate. In politics and at retail, its the label and the volume not the facts or the nuances that triumph. It ought not to be. But it is. Marketers must take heed. Reputation Management is a Fantasy. Nobody, not even the world's greatest PR guy or the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party, could be prepared for the onslaught that Sarah Palin has endured. Imagine an army of reporters investigating your life, scores of instant experts and pseudo-psychiatrists pontificating about who you are and what you stand for or represent or an army of bloggers writing snarky comments about every aspect of your life or dredging up kids you hated in high school for their 15 minutes of revenge. The rush to judgment --with or without the genuine facts -- is real. In a 24/7/365 always-on multi-channel media world you can never nail everything down or spin all that needs spun. So you have to work to create an overall impression. Ignore anyone who tells you they can manage the buzz. The Conversation Counts. The most valuable aspect of the Palin nomination is the fast-acting hyper-energy injection it gave to the global conversation about America's future and our presidency. The terabytes of commentary in words, pictures and music from the big corporate media superstars to the nobody solo bloggers is the essence of democracy and the dynamo that powers and shapes our evolving culture. In this crucible of babble and ideas the big issues of experience versus promise will be hashed out. In this maelstrom without manners...
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Marketing Lessons From College Tours My daughter and I are shopping for colleges. We just completed an illuminating west coast swing where we toured 7 schools in 4 days. And while this year will see the largest number of students chasing a fixed number of slots since the 70s, its fascinating to see how each school presents and positions itself. Some seem to have learned and internalized the lessons of personalization, engagement and customer-focus. They anticipate and manipulate the process for sifting and comparing data from equivalent institutions and the process for sorting out the conflicting rational, emotional and financial needs that arise between college-age children and baby boomer parents. Others strike a take-it or leave-it posture. And still others get half-way there. Here's what I observed and learned along the way. Put Your Best Face Forward. Tour guides are archetypes. The kids who lead the tours are the face of the college. As you walk around, you assume that these kids are the people your kid will interact with and befriend. They are a primal indicator of what the school and its student body are like. Their ability to handle questions and tell you "what its really like" play a huge role in how prospective students perceive the college and project themselves into a future experience. In some cases their choice of words and turns of phrase, posture, outfit, eye contact and energy level provoke immediate and visceral responses. There were several hat she loved and I hated and visa versa.Most are cute, energetic and eminently presentable, though what they know and what they say count too. Think carefully about who you put forward as your face and spokesperson. You are perceived as them. Rehearse and train them well. Teach them to understand their task through the eyes of their audience. Focus more on engaging the audience rather than spewing out the statistics about the biology labs or the art studios. Practice pacing, anticipate FAQs, understand how your prospects make decisions. Prioritize and Target Themes. Every school had a positioning and a shtick. One claimed to have the largest number of PhD candidates. Another had the biggest number of Fulbright Scholars. Another was the greenest place on earth. Yet not every school aligned the party line with the visiting party. In one surprising case, the emphasis on multi-dimensional environmentalism that included vegan offerings in the cafeterias,the low-volume flush toilets in the dorms and returning all the lawns to their natural desert habitat overwhelmed all the other more relevant selling points. Consumers remember one or two things about every product they encounter. This shorthand is stored and becomes the point of comparison with like products. Marketers need to start by deciding what take-away they want prospective customers to remember. Then they need to engineer how to frame and communicate that message. This requires a prioritization of messages and mapping messages to discrete constituent audiences. In the case of the green college, the green message probably plays very well to current students, alumni and prospective donors. But for us, prospective students looking for criteria to sort a school in or out of a consideration set, being green isn't a useful or relevant criterian. Differentiate. Every college invests in campus facilities, good faculty, innovative curriculum and student life. Most kids and parents are trying to figure out how one is different from the other and/or better suited to the personality and interests of the prospective student. Most schools have an identifiable student psycho-demographic and most know who they generally compete with. But few pro-actively draw the comparisons for you. When one guide explained that 2/3rds of the campus were introverted nerdy kids, it was a clear differentiating and persuasive statement. It would also be interesting to test different messages to prospects with different levels of interest. Imagine if the schools really laid it on for early decision prospects and soft-soaped saftey school prospects. Crafting a USP is the fundamental marketing task. Consideration and purchase is driven by differentiation. Draw the differences early, clearly and often. Customers want to understand what you have and what they will experience if they chose you. And they need to have a way to quickly and accurately remember you separately and distinctly from competitors who look and feel a lot like you. Influence the Influencers. The kids express preferences and the parents shape the final decision. Both sets are affected emotionally and rationally by a full range of stimuli and responses during the shopping process. Colleges have to play to both audiences...

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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