A Battle of Messaging

Like most people, I’ve watched the process of impeaching Donald Trump with some level of interest.  However, compared to other things that have happened during the 3 years of his presidency, I haven’t paid day-to-day attention to every nuance and development. A few days ago, as things began to crescendo towards conclusion, I actually spent some time thinking about the entire process. Not about my position on it, or as a political or legal process, but as analog to the process of marketing & selling – the thing I’ve built a career doing.

I am fond of saying that everybody in a business is in sales, regardless of their role: marketing, sales, services, finance, product, HR. Everyone.

And every process in a business is really a sales process – either an external one driving towards opportunities and ultimately revenues or an internal one driving towards planning or execution. And marketing and selling efforts nearly always succeed or fail based upon the strength or weakness of the messaging employed.

There are always people who are selling.

And there are always people who:

  • are already buying and need to know that your product or service is the right solution for their need;
  • don’t know that they need your product or service;
  • don’t know the problem you propose to solve is even a problem.

This is (in simplistic terms) the reason for messaging and messaging platforms and hierarchies.

Headaches And Aspirin

In each of these cases you need to establish a value proposition.  For those that don’t know the problem exists, you need to both define the problem itself, and also establish why your product or service is the best available solution. I’ve often spoken of this as ‘headaches & aspirin’. If you don’t know that headaches exist – if you’ve never had that pain – then me trying to sell you an aspirin is really hard, because I’m trying to solve a problem for you that you don’t know you have. This is an extreme example since most people have had some physical pain that aspirin helps, but you get my point.

I first need to establish the existence of the problem (in this case headaches) and the severity of it (they hurt, badly), before I can even begin to sell you that my aspirin is the best pain reliever. I’d be naïve to not assume someone else is also trying to do the same thing (and maybe they are even counter-messaging that while headaches are bad, backaches might be worse). This is where you spend more of your effort being provocative about the problem itself, because you need awareness of the problem, more than differentiation about your solution.

Selling The Invisible

This is much harder when selling to businesses, because getting companies to spend significant resources (including people and money) on poorly defined challenges is problematic.  I’ve worked very hard in my career to evangelize problems and solutions well in-advance of their widespread awareness and adoption – this is how visionary companies lead.

I’ve never marketed something that was already commoditized. I was lucky (or insightful) enough to join companies where the establishment of a value proposition and a market was the work. I’m proud to say I’ve helped do that pretty successfully. It’s not easy, and it takes time.

I was evangelizing about the business impact of bad customer experiences online back in 2001. That idea has really only become truly mainstream over the last 3 years or so. Total ecommerce sales across all businesses in the U.S. was $32.5B in 2001. Amazon alone generated $72B in revenue in Q4 2018. The same problems exist (largely), but the business impact of them today is simply much more obvious, and the pain for both consumers and businesses are much more acute.

Think about the people selling doorbell cameras before anyone knew very much about porch piracy. That sale is a lot easier today, but Ring, Blink, Nest and the others selling the cameras developed the idea for them long ago – they had a vision of a problem that needed solving, that most people didn’t yet recognize.

Very little political messaging falls into this category. The issues on both sides, while varying at times, are largely pretty constant. The 50,000-foot view of conservative priorities versus progressive ones is that there hasn’t been much meaningful variance between them my entire life (interestingly, the behavioral gap between the people who hold the positions has grown exponentially over the same time).

The easiest audience to sell to is the one that already knows it needs your solution. They know they have a problem and are actively looking for a solution. They’re buyers – they don’t need much selling. In this case, all you need to do is differentiate – you’re no longer evangelizing the problem itself, you’re able to focus your message on telling them that your pain reliever is better than alternatives. They are a willing and ready audience to buy what you’re selling. To me, this is the definition of a “base” in political terms.

Most campaigns don’t put much effort into telling people why they should be conservative or progressive, because those “bases” are largely set, for good and bad. Instead they aim their effort squarely at those who aren’t as black & white – independents. That’s a much smaller audience but a critical one – the one that “moves the needle”. It’s also the hardest audience to influence, because they tend to actually be objective. Objective audiences make for pragmatic buyers, and pragmatic buyers have to be convinced. They need to be sold.

This is where messaging drives towards being more provocative about the differences between solutions, because the problem awareness already exists. Coke v. Pepsi, McDonalds v. Burger King, Ford v. Chevy and myriad other examples prove that just because your product is better doesn’t always mean it wins.

So, in a competitive environment – sometimes you have to be provocative to get attention. Sometimes as your competition responds or counters, you have to continually raise the level of provocation.

Since the base has already chosen their allegiance to party or ideal, only then do they choose to align with their preferred candidate.

With Trump we’ve experienced a new phenomenon for America, where provocation has built allegiance to a specific person.

This is (in my estimation) very dangerous, because allegiance to ideals may not be bad, but allegiance to people is scary  – and allegiance to provocateurs has never ended well, historically.

I’ll pivot back to my original premise – that the impeachment process has really been a messaging battle – between a provocateur and a competitor.

Like anything else, impeaching a president is largely a sales process.  As I discussed above, those leading the process need to know the audience they’re selling to and prepare a value proposition that best resonates to them. And you need to recognize that there is a competitor out there selling against you. In this case lead by a provocateur, willing to raise the bar by lowering the discourse.

If I were creating a new messaging platform for a software solution – I need to know the problem I solve – how will it make someone’s life better or will make their company more successful.  I’d need to really analyze who at that company is the best person to use my solution and what it does for them individually, and I’d need to know who else would be bettered by its use. I’d also need to know who makes the ultimate decisions on buying those solutions, and target messages that resonate to each of them.

And then I have to become so expert on that narrative that buyers believe I know more about their issues, concerns and challenges than they do. I become the knowledge expert and the evangelist. And I document this as a platform that covers every possible known key use of the messages. Because I can’t be everywhere (and I don’t actually sell anything) I need sales people to absorb the message and internalize it, and make it repeatable – almost as if I was saying it, just adding their own style or nuances to it to align with their specific customers or prospects. We call them playbooks.

Accuracy is just a feature. Benefits matter.

The key point here is that my platform doesn’t HAVE to be right or completely accurate.

Most software (for example) doesn’t actually solve ALL the problems someone will claim it to. Most medicines don’t cure ALL of the things they claim to. Most cars don’t get the gas mileage they profess.

Marketers create narratives, often designed simply to counter competitive claims – and they create tools and enable salespeople to stay relentlessly on message.

It is rare to lose “deals” when you have the right target audience identified and a message that resonates to them, delivered confidently and with a perceived expertise (even if later proven wrong or invalid or simply “oversold”).

This is why the best solution doesn’t always win and why the best technology rarely does.

What wins? The best sales & marketing.

This is where the republicans are winning the impeachment storyline. They know their base and are targeting that base with increasingly provocative claims (and they have a powerful media engine enabling that, of course).

They aren’t trying to change the minds of progressives.

They are largely ignoring the independents in the middle, which (since this isn’t an election) is exactly the right thing to do. Undecideds can change election outcomes – but they have nothing to do with how congress votes.

And as they target the base, they are staying relentlessly on message – a message crafted under the auspices of a master provocateur.

A friend of mine commented recently on Facebook that it sounded like all the republicans have the same speechwriter. That is the power of a messaging platform or playbook. Even though most reasonable people know that there is very little truth in this specific platform – it is being repeated over and over.

The repeated consistent message delivered during debate by 197 republican representatives created far more awareness than the often disconnected messages sent by a larger universe of 235 democratic ones. Amplify that with the power of a solely focused and friendly media engine and you can see who will win.

The Truth Doesn’t Always Win

The democratic side started talking about impeachment 3 years ago.

Probably regrettably.

Nancy Pelosi was very savvy, resisting impeachment talk for a very long time – even though there seems to have been impeachable conduct from the very beginning.

She did that because she knew she couldn’t win, even if there was truth. The best solution doesn’t always win. Neither does the truth. Unfortunately. Why fight a war you know you’re outmanned in?

Once the Ukraine scenario came about she changed her position, because the narrative was a much easier one to sell, of actually documented conduct.

But the failure has been in the messaging itself, and of her “salespeople” (her caucus) to stay relentlessly on that message.  They have targeted the wrong audiences – they have tried to convince independents, who have no influence on impeachment. Maybe their strategy is that knowing they can’t win impeachment, use the message as a “passive” long-game effort to try and swing independents for the 2020 campaigns. For some reason, they have targeted the competitor’s “base” using poor tactics – intellectual reasonings that don’t resonate to a base built less on ideals than on allegiance to personality, and using tactics that enable easy counter-marketing.

They have allowed the republicans to take simple concepts and co-opt them – using complex terms most people don’t understand like “quid-pro-quo”, instead of understandable (even if not fully accurate) words like “bribery”. Words are powerful.  Semantics matter. Talk to the people you are trying to influence using language they embrace.

They’ve allowed all of the things they previously decided were “not enough” to impeach against to become just as important in the narrative as the Ukraine situation itself – and have tried to be provocative in debate by showing images of children in cages; invoking the Mueller report; describing Emoluments and more – which simply confuse the issue and cloud the narrative. Muddy water is by its nature not clear.

If those things weren’t deemed understandable or bad enough to impeach, just throwing them into a “death by a thousand cuts” prosecution plays right into the hands of a storyline about “presidential harassment” or “witch hunts”.

And they’ve done all of this while already knowing that the other side simply has a much bigger megaphone – built through years of investment into Fox News, Limbaugh, etc. The long term media investment has paid off for the republicans. The democrats don’t have the time to build counter-programming or messaging.

It’s like a sales person going into an account and finding out there was a much bigger, much “noisier” competitor involved in a deal and simply deciding the strategy would be throwing every feature he has (and every flaw the competitor has) against the wall and hoping something sticks, instead of staying focused on aligning the customer’s issues with his proposed solution. A value proposition.

Failed Value Proposition

I think the biggest failure (as happens with most failed marketing & selling efforts) has been the inability to convince people that a change would even matter.  How would things be different without Trump?

The value proposition of “we need to get rid of him for his conduct” without any alternative that would show meaningful policy changes is simply flawed, it doesn’t sell to the average Joe, and it plays directly into a seemingly vindictive “relitigating the election” narrative.

What would change if he were removed from office?

Not much, best I can tell.

Lastly, read my friend Eric Schneider’s blog post. He’s far smarter than I am:



As always, your comments, feedback, likes and shares are appreciated.


1 thought on “A Battle of Messaging

  1. Well written, Geoff. Take out the politics and it’s a strong reminder of what messaging should be about. Put in terms of politics, it’s a good lens on what we’re seeing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: