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Emotion Trumps Reason in Branding and Politics

Lawrence A. Crosby

Failure to activate emotional motivation with a large cohort of the public can doom a campaign, much like it can a brand. ​​

I often examined the applicability of customer centricity notions (i.e., satisfaction, loyalty, relationships, engagement, CX, etc.) in various eclectic domains, e.g., “healthy relationships” (healthcare), “philanthropic relationships” (giving), “sustainable relationships” (ecology), etc. One domain that I’ve avoided, with great trepidation, has been politics. This is partly due to the maturity of the field and all that has been written and said about the topic from applied and scientific perspectives. As a marketing columnist, I also want to avoid alienating readers who might take offense at comments made about a particular candidate or party. But let’s face it: The current presidential race is pretty darn interesting and is dominating the public discourse. 

There have been highly polarized elections in the past (I remember Johnson vs. Goldwater and McGovern vs. Nixon), but this one seems particularly contentious if not an outright Donnybrook. It virtually begs comment. So let me weigh-in with a few candidate- and party-neutral thoughts from a relationship-marketing standpoint. I am inspired by a former colleague and co-author, Bruce Corner, who noted how the brand loyalty model seemed to explain losses by such candidates as John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988). His premise was that in the war of emotion over reason, emotion always wins. 

It is not unusual to think of a political candidate much like a product or service that voters can decide to “buy.” While the analogy isn’t perfect, there are notable similarities. This probably explains why many advertising and marketing research agencies have a political arm. As in brand marketing, voters develop an affinity for candidates in the consideration set over a period of time based on a variety of experiences, including communications. Campaign managers hope that what emerges is a large base of loyal supporters who actually go to the polls and vote. Since campaigns in the U.S. often last many months, if not years, the strength and resilience of that voter-candidate relationship is of paramount importance.  As in the current presidential race, voters are constantly bombarded by influences that could deflect their loyalty emanating from friends and family, co-workers, debates, press interviews, editorials, endorsements and political advertising.  Looking even further down the road, if the candidate is lucky enough to win, the re-election cycle is just around the corner, raising the risk of loyalty erosion due to the politician’s actual performance in office.

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Lawrence A. Crosby

Lawrence A. Crosby is the retired dean of the Drucker School of Management. He is the chief data scientist at the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, a part of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.