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Sunday, February 25, 2007

On Experience Marketing, Or, Dude, Where’s My Party?

In a previous conversation, I discussed the concept of “transelectional” candidates-those who are, over the years, always running, even if not for any particular election.

To put it another way, there are political actors who continuously maintain themselves in “candidate mode” because they might find themselves in a Senate, gubernatorial, or Presidential election, depending on circumstances. Candidates not preparing for one particular office, but any “election of opportunity”.

In that discussion, I addressed the concept of how these transelectional candidates have begun to develop “brands”, just as we see in the consumer marketplace; and used Al Gore’s association with global climate change issues as an example.

In today’s discussion, I’d like to further address the issue of political branding, discuss the role of the Democratic Party in this evolution, and examine strategies that could develop long-term bonding between younger voters and the Party.

When a candidate develops a “brand” it is typically a single concept brand-Global Warming, Reducing Poverty, War On Terrorism, Out Of Iraq are all being used today. So where does that leave the Democratic Party, in a world of individual candidates who can now develop their own communities without a Party apparatus?

To answer that question, consider Disney, Evangelical Christians, and the 13-17 year old pre-voter.

How many of you have a Disney upbringing? That is, you grew up on Mickey and Donald and Annette Funichello (or Britney Spears), you visited the theme parks, maybe went to “Disney On Ice”, and now you and the kids are watching “Finding Nemo”.

For a child born to Evangelical Christianity, there is a similar outcome: childhood upbringing often leads to adult affiliation.

There is a common thread between these two, and I submit that common thread is the fact that both are more than a “product”-they are an “experience”.

Experience marketing bonds consumers to a philosophy, not just a particular product of a company. For example, the same customers who grew up on Ford trucks are likely to see the Mustang in a positive light. And not as likely to buy Chevy. And that preference is probably going to last that consumer’s entire life. (Coke and Pepsi?)

Let’s take this a step further.
Let’s talk about teenagers aged 13-17.

The New Politics Institute tells us this group...

...bases much of their understanding of the world on our recent ”terrorist mode” history.
JFK, the civil rights movement, the Warren Court, Vietnam, Watergate, and the optimism of the Clinton years are not part of that history. surprisingly conservative regarding security issues-nearly half (46%) do not see the Iraq war as a mistake; and they tend not to object to monitoring all electronic communications of US citizens.

...favors incarceration over changing the social conditions that lead to crime-42% to 35%.

...of all groups, is least likely to see the Iraq war as a mistake.

The picture is not entirely pessimistic for Democrats. Consider this:

Surprisingly enough, this group supports Government action to lessen the differences in economic opportunity in America by a near plurality (45%). (Yes, I noted the contradiction as well...)

70% favor more Federal money for school construction, and 66% want to fund college for all qualified high school graduates.

46% consider the state of the environment an important issue.

Most interesting of all is the issue of self-identification.
Half of the respondents report no political affiliation, and the remaining half are about evenly split between D and R. As the New Politics Institute report notes, this group “seem[s] to be up for grabs”. (Page 6)

It stands to reason, then, that it would behoove somebody in the progressive political community to engage in a process of voter development through “branding and bonding”, directed at this 13-17 year old group.

And I submit that somebody should be the Democratic Party.

That just as the Party, as part of it’s ongoing business, provides access to donor lists and other candidate resources throughout the 50 states; they should also be providing access to a “Democratic Party experience” that bonds these “eventual voters” to Democratic candidates yet to be identified, and enhances the effect of the Democratic fundraising apparatus, however it may evolve.

This “experience” does not have to be a political event.
Consider the Republican equivalent: the experience of church.

Obviously faith and politics are not the same, and they don’t derive from the same source. But at the same time, common faith provides a bonding experience that is effectively harnessed by the Rs. Thus the “Republican base” and the “Religious Right” are essentially the same people

What “Common Faith” brand could Ds develop that could make younger voters more inclined to self-associate D? I have one suggestion:

“We Work For You”

Look at the issues of greatest concern for this community-Iraq, education, the environment, security, equality of opportunity.

Then look at the issues where we might differ with this age group-for example, we might be more likely to support individual freedom and personal privacy initiatives, since the older amongst us can actually recall such a thing being a goal of Government.

There are a ton of opportunities for the Ds to align themselves with the thinking of this age group, so the question now becomes: how do we create the bonding experience?

My guess is that no single answer will apply here, but I would suggest four areas of action:

1) Empower this age group to take action to “save the world”. Encourage, and even fund, projects submitted by and using volunteers from this group. Use sponsorship as a means of showing that when it comes to cleaning up parks, helping to recycle, or trying to fight global warming, that Ds are “Working for You”. Consider operating a “volunteer clearinghouse” independent of electoral cycles. Organizing and grant writing workshops could teach young community leaders, who might become future precinct captains.

2) Sponsorships, Sponsorships, Sponsorships. Sponsor students, sponsor schools, sponsor bands on tour. There have been efforts by the hip-hop community to reach out to the Ds. Take advantage-sponsor a Jay-Z tour, for example. Once again-“We Work For You”.

3) Teach the benefits of freedom. The more this group understands the rights of American citizens, the more they understand that Ds are “Working For You”.

4) Harness the power of handmade media. Create a community, not unlike YouTube, that could provide a public voice for young filmmakers who want to address their local concerns to a national audience. Provide resources (downloadable editing software?) that send what message to the community? “We Work For You”, of course.

This 13-17 age group is not a monolithic society, and what is cool today is uncool in 6 hours, but there are universal messages, as we see above, that can be communicated. If we respect the audience, and let them have substantial control of the process, bonding will occur.

Traditional wisdom suggests there is no return on this investment for many years, but that may be changing. The fastest growing age group in terms of voter participation from 2000 to 2004 was the 18-24 age group.

There’s another bonus in all of this-the “Kidfluence” the members of this age group have on their parents. Respect earned today could equal votes earned in the very next electoral cycle.

Is it appropriate to target such an audience?
I submit that if the corporate owners of Yu-Gi-Oh, and many others like them, can place themselves on television to promote a consumer product aimed at this age group, and younger, then the door is open, and it’s time for the Democrats to step through.

So let’s summarize.

We now see candidates creating individual “brands” and developing communities around those brands.

Branding, as an emotional experience, is an avenue to long-term bonding.

The Democratic Party should develop a single overarching “brand” such as the “We Work For You” suggestion, that could be reinforced through empowerment, sponsorships, and online community development.

Creating emotional bonding opportunities with the 13-17 age group could help counteract the Republican use of the church experience as a bonding mechanism.

And finally, the influence of this group on their parents, combined with the data on the growth of participation by younger voters , suggests this approach could be successful sooner than anticipated.

If there’s one thing 13-17 year olds are doing, it’s looking for a party.
Let’s invite ‘em to this one.

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