Mitt Romney’s loss—and by extension the GOP’s—in the recent presidential election holds some important lessons for brands.  The big takeaway? You can’t move forward by looking backwards.

Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”. The emphasis is mine, but you can see by the definition that this is not a useful north star for a brand.

The issue for brands is always relevance.  This means being in step with the prevailing zeitgeist.  This isn’t to say be “bleeding edge,” nor does is mean abandoning a brand’s heritage.  It just means taking the things that are unique to your brand and positioning them in a way that’s in step with where people’s heads are.

Unfortunately, we all have this backwards-looking tendency. And it’s easy to peg our sensibilities to a time when we younger and part of the demographic that was setting trends.  For most of us, that time was in our late teens and into our twenties.  We had no family responsibilities and we relished our freedom.  We were coming into our own.  The futures were full of possibilities and the music and culture we experienced at that time made deeply emotional connections in our minds.

But, for many, as we get older, our priorities change with marriage, kids and other “adult responsibilities”.  But culture keeps changing, too.  A new, younger generation comes of age, puts their imprint on the world, and remakes it in their image.  We look up, find that the world has changed and, instead of being open, we try to re-order things to the way we knew them.  But you can never really go backwards, and most efforts to do so end in disbelief, disappointment, shrinking market share or all three.

So the trick is to hold onto the traditions that are important to us, but recognizing that the world changes.  Always.  And staying open to the possibilities that those changes bring.

Said another way: Culture matters. In fact, I’d written some years ago that culture itself is a medium. That is, all communication is filtered through it.  And, just as the density of a particular medium refracts light, the cultural zeitgeist can make or break marketing messages.  Romney and the GOP lost because they didn’t get where they stood in relation to popular culture.  That was the biggest disconnect, the one that made their positions looks like a platform from the 1950s.

That said, here are some things that brand marketers can keep in mind:

  1. Beware of “internal polling”. Living in an information bubble is bad.  Yes, that bubble confirms your view of the world.  However, it doesn’t confirm how the real world thinks and feels.  Make every effort to get outside data on how your brand is perceived and what it means to fans, friends and foes.  In this way, you’ll have a better sense of where the culture is and what your brand’s relationship to it is.
  2. Courage is important. So you’ve got this data, now what? Someone within the company has to be willing to stand up and say that we’re out of step with the times.  And those in charge of brand stewardship have to resist the urge to kill the messenger here.  The long-term health of your brand depends on it.
  3. Actions matter more than words.  Saying one thing but actively pursuing other things causes a disconnect and the marketplace notices.  In the case of the GOP, many claimed that their party was a big tent.  But poor or non-existent outreach to Hispanics, blacks and women spoke even louder.  Again, this didn’t play well in a country that is growing every more multicultural.
  4. Facts matter, so tell the truth. Just so we’re clear: There’s this thing called the Internet and social media.  Regular people can check the veracity of any statement at any time.  Which means you need to be on point. Don’t lie, have your lie exposed by numerous media outlets, then double-down on that lie. People aren’t stupid: It just makes you look like an asshole.
  5. Believe data. Kind of a followup up to number 4. We have to agree that if there’s enough data on something, then that should be admissible as a basis for a dialogue.  No problems ever get solved when one side completely dismisses reputable data and refuses to join the conversation.  People don’t mind vigorous debate, but they want a brand to represent a basic level of decency and fairness.  This builds trust.
  6. Know who your audience is today.  There are existing customers and then there potential new ones.  You must know the difference between the two.  All marketers know that loyalty strategies are vastly different than acquisition strategies.  Often then have to be running currently in order to capture engage consumers wherever they are along the path to purchase.

What else can marketers takeaway from the GOP loss on Tuesday? How important a role do you think culture played?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


Posted by Rob Fields