Before You Can Sell, You First Must Understand and Empathize

One of the things marketers must do is understand their audience, and if they want to increase market share, they must also understand the audience who isn’t yet sold on their product or service.
I’m intrigued by the idea that Democrats understand their base–which is really a coalition of disparate interests–but that they fail miserably when it comes to understanding the people who consistently vote against them. From a marketer’s perspective, non-Dems ought to be seen as future customers who have yet to be converted to a better offering. Sadly, that’s not how the brand managers in the Democratic camp see “the people.” A fact which increases partisanship at a time when unity is sorely needed.
Judith Warner, a Dem and a journalist, ventured deep into Red territory this week, attending a McCain/Palin rally in Fairfax, Va. This is one of the things she heard from the podium:

“I hope they brought their own Brie and Chablis with them,” Fred Thompson said, to raucous laughter, as I willed myself to disappear, remembering, with a shudder, that my children had demanded Brie for breakfast only that morning.

Thompson was referring to the “lawyers and scandal mongers and representatives of cable networks” descending on Alaska, in effort to learn more about Sarah Palin.
The complexity and duplicity in this kind of language is daunting. How did a political party run by the richest people in the world, manage to portray the American workers’ party as elitists?

Warner points to morality as a possible answer. She spoke with Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, who argues that conservatives prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger.”
In his essay, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt writes:

People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

The Dems have allowed themselves to be boxed in and defined by their opposition. They’re seen as godless by many on the right, and that is a huge obstacle to overcome in a general election.
As to the elitist trap set by the Republicans, the Dems walked right into it. They have two of the most loquacious, intellectual Senators in modern time on the ticket this fall. That concerns me greatly. Because I am not a liberal, nor a Dem (I’m a radical Independent), I have an easier time seeing their faults than do party loyalists. This particular “fault” could well cost the Dems another important election.
The Republicans are savvy marketers, I have to give it to them. They’ve proven they can sell anything, no matter how sordid or bad for the nation, to the American public. I think they’re about to prove it again. The Republicans have a war hero and a hockey mom going up against two members of the liberal intelligentsia.
The fact is the people at the top of the ticket and the people in the back rooms making most of the decisions don’t resemble the people they purport to serve in the slightest. That’s true for both parties. But the Republicans are much more adept at appearing to be mainstream in their views and their actions.
So, who do the factory workers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio–men and women who have never tasted French cheese or wine in their life–vote for? From a policy point of view, they have every reason in the world to vote for Obama, but policy is not a trigger. Race is a trigger. Religion is a trigger. Abortion is a trigger. These are the ingredients that make for a winning product. You have to have them in the right quantity to win.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.