“They said our sights were set too high,” proclaimed Sen. Barack Obama to a crowd of supporters after winning the Iowa Caucus, the first real test on the road to the White House.
It’s true. Obama was underestimated, as was his Republican counterpart, Mike Huckabee, who beat his closest rival, Mitt Romney, by huge margin despite being outspent on the order of 15-to-1. Although Huckabee, the Christian evangelical former Governor of Arkansas, had risen sharply in the polls headed into the caucus — thanks to good performances in recent debates and a knack for off-the-cuff, wisecracking candor on live TV — not even his closest staffers could have dreamed of such a win (especially after a week of cringe-inducing PR gaffes by their candidate).
The race has only just begun for these two — very different — candidates, but their Iowa wins destroyed myths about what was possible for their campaigns.
Marketers should take notice.
Obama’s Story: “Change You Can Believe In” is the slogan, and it’s working. Experience in Washington isn’t everything; in fact, it’s a setback for anyone who wants to reform the system. He believes in “the audacity of hope” and is often mocked for his optimistic (some say “naive”) rhetoric. A freshman Senator with a mere 20 years in politics, he’s positioned himself as the only Democratic candidate who can truly offer a fresh start. He’s built an enthusiastic and diverse base, although he’s especially popular among young voters, who rarely turn out to vote before the general election and often show up in weak numbers when that happens. But they’re showing up now — and in big numbers. Our racial and economic divisions are possible to overcome, he believes, because that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s seen the U.S. from more angles than most of us, and that type of experience can’t be shown on a resume. Americans are tired of divisive politics, and Obama claims to be the one who can end the partisan gridlock that has characterized the Bush administration. More importantly, though, a vote for Obama is said to be more than a vote against his rivals; it’s a vote against cynicism and the status quo; a chance for YOU to have a voice in politics (“I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours”). Besides, he’s even good at basketball. Oprah supports him and, apparently, so does Iowa. Shouldn’t you?
Huckabee’s Story: “Faith. Family. Freedom.” Just an ordinary guy; one who happens to have been a pastor, a governor, and a patient diagnosed with Type II diabetes, who then lost 110 pounds and ran three marathons. Tax reform (abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a heavier sales tax) and a return to traditional family values are two of our biggest priorities. A creationist evangelical who lived in a triple-wide trailer next to the Arkansas governor’s mansion just to save taxpayers’ money while it was being renovated. He’s become a media darling over the past few months after unpretentious, quick-witted appearances on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the CNN/YouTube Debates and, the night before his Iowa win, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. To say his is an untraditional campaign is an understatement, and, although comparatively broke (and that’s changing quickly), Huckabee has something worth more than money: Evangelical supporters (literally, in his case) who would rather vote for a guy like them than someone who’s just trying to buy their vote or pander to them. Chuck Norris supports him and, apparently, so does Iowa. Shouldn’t you?
Lesson #1: Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is impossible. When your competition seems unbeatable, don’t be afraid to compete on your own terms. People loves an underdog, especially one whose message reflects their own aspirations. A little candor goes a long way. Winning votes is one thing, but transcending old rules by tapping into the right message is what spreads word of mouth and grows your base.
Lesson #2: If either of these candidates had blindly followed the advice of so-called “experts,” they would seem more scripted and, consequently, less authentic. You don’t need to be negative to win, but you’d better know how to leverage other people’s mistakes.
Lesson #3: You can’t be all things to all people. Not everyone’s going to like what you’re saying (or selling). If you want to create brand awareness AND brand advocates, fearlessly define what you’re not.
Lesson #4: Leave the I-me-my stuff alone. A good campaign isn’t all about you (your brand), it’s all about “YOU” the customer). Too bad Hillary didn’t have the We-We Monitor years ago.
Check out the difference in small money donations between Clinton…
Lesson #5: It’s important to look beyond the bottom line. Although Clinton leads in terms of total donations, the bulk of it is from (presumably) rich donors who have given the maximum contribution allowed by law. Obama, meanwhile, has more than doubled his rival in contributions under $200! Average Order Value, as it were, for Clinton is higher than it is for Obama, but in a world where a vote is a vote is a vote, there are simply more people willing to reach for their credit cards and checkbooks for Obama than for any other candidate.
Will Obama grab the nomination and upset Clinton? Can Huckabee translate his momentum into wins in other states? What else can we learn from these candidates?