Marketing in the wake of ‘Slick Willie’

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.It used to be that candidates seeking public office would recruit marketing and advertising specialists to help package and promote the politician.The defeat of...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

It used to be that candidates seeking public office would recruit marketing and advertising specialists to help package and promote the politician.

The defeat of big machines in 1992  those marketing ‘Yes’ in the Canadian referendum, and those selling even harder for George Bush in the u.s.  challenges the wisdom of that practice.

Ignoring precepts

The ‘No’ forces and Bill Clinton won by ignoring many of the accepted precepts of marketing.

‘No’ built its constituency without the benefit of a formal strategic plan. It became an exercise in organic marketing, shifting, splitting, even contradicting itself, but gaining momentum and credibility by speaking directly, honestly, from the heart.

Clinton had incredible discipline, distilling strategy to three famous words: ‘The economy, stupid.’

However, the greatest commitment of time and energy went, not into the plan, nor into the strategy, but into the tactics of execution.

How the economy made an impact on voters varied by region, by states, by cities, by community, by household, and, whenever possible, Clinton customized and personalized.

Important lesson

The important lesson for marketers is that these tactics could not have been planned.

Detailing them in a strategic document would have been, as they so often are in business, a waste of time.

Instead, the planning and execution were also organic, responding to fast-fading opportunities and unexpected challenges.

The strategy was critically important because it provided the guiding insight, but not the dogmatic rigidity, often imposed on overly planned execution.

Consumer franchises are conventionally developed by collecting the custom of people who share a common need.

Research is used to identify the biggest (available) commonality, and marketing seeks to connect its brand to the widest possible group that experiences this need.

The ‘No’ forces in Canada and Bill Clinton in the u.s., whether by design or accident, came at this from the reverse.

Each built their winning franchise by patching together groups with distinct and disparate needs. Differences were not only respected, but emphasized.

The objective was not to unite people around a single conviction, but to embrace their differing convictions to create a rumbling, unhomogenous, but committed entity.

Most brands speak to the marketplace with one voice  one package, one price, one advertisement. Consistency is the mortar with which consumer franchises are built.


Yet, the ‘No’ forces and Clinton did not attend to consistency. They went with the fragmentation of the modern marketplace.

Rather than overcome it, they served the fragmentation, using a variety of programs and messages to engage the widely differing groups they sought to convert.

Some companies, such as Nike, have already foresaken consistency for relevance.

Nike’s running shoes are not only marketed with a separate personality and advertising than basketball shoes, but specific styles of running and basketball shoes get their own individual treatment.

Sometimes, the same shoe style is advertised differently to women than to men. And even ‘Just Do It’ sometimes just is not used.

The whole thing seems chaotic, about as predictable as the marketplace Nike plays in. Which, of course, is the point.

New models

Serving the chaos demanded new models for communications for Bill Clinton and the ‘No’ forces.

The big national campaigns  those with stirring images of landscape and flags popularized by Reagan adman and bbdo Chairman Allen Rosenshine  failed to move people in 1992.

In fact, in Canada, the high production values of the ‘Yes’ commercials, particularly those camouflaged last year as ads for Canada’s 125th birthday, offended many people with their ostentation and profligacy.

Instead, the electorates responded to simplicity.

By far, the most riveting ads in the ‘Yes/No’ referendum were those shot on home video by the sometimes inarticulate, often unprofessional, yet passionate and compelling individuals who staked out the available free air time to voice their ‘No.’

Clinton, too, shunned the glossy imagery of national advertising. Opting for quantity, rather than quality, his team produced a slew of new ads daily.

Jarring videos

Hastily cut and pasted, these slightly jarring videos cut like laser beams, focussing on the local, sometimes neighborhood, problems created by the sputtering economy.

Each market saw from Clinton what was relevant to them, while Bush tried to repeat to himself, waving flags, playing anthems and pointing fingers.

The public, that ‘great unwashed,’ showed itself to be incredibly adept at seeing through simplistic images.

Conventional politics, like conventional marketing, left people restless, often angry. Hungry for substance, millions even sat through Ross Perot’s badly lit, chart-filled half-hour monologue commercials.

The point of all this is that Canadians should be at the forefront of marketing innovation. Our country is a gumbo of culture and languages.

Not an option

Customization, relevance, and the new executional tools for forging them, are really not an option here.

Yet, most marketers persist in using mono-cultural strategies and unilingual executions.

They persist in compromising the economies of opportunity for the economies of scale.

Bush and the ‘Yes’ referendum forces had the full weight of such conventional thinking supporting them. And look how far that got them.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives. His first book, Meditations on Business: Why Business As Usual Won’t Work Anymore, came out in 1991, and he is hard at work on a second. Dalla Costa spent 16 years in advertising and heads a new company called Catalysis, which provides strategic counsel to ceos and senior managers.