Politicians Need to Adapt to New Behaviors, Like Madison Avenue Has | Commentary

Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:30pm

For decades, the political arena has shaped consumer industries’ approach to marketing. But the central-control model, in which sellers reach relatively uninformed buyers with uniform messages distributed across mass-media channels, is ending, thanks in large part to the rise of the Internet and social media.

It’s now time for the political world to take a cue from the private sector when it comes to reaching consumers — or in this case, voters — with meaningful messages.

In researching my recent book on marketing, I studied Edward Bernays, a man who plays a pivotal role in creating present-day marketing systems. Bernays started his career more than 100 years ago working with the U.S. government. He helped the government develop approaches that convinced Americans to support the war effort.

Bernays had a very low opinion of the average citizen. He believed people were easily influenced and that manipulation was necessary because they were irrational — not smart enough or informed enough to make their own decisions. He felt it was his duty to help influence their choices and, in his book “Propaganda” (1928) argued that manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy.

Bernays took the techniques he honed during his tenure with the government and used them to advance the agendas and line the pockets of companies that were creating products. He is credited with developing many successful campaigns — including a famous campaign that convinced women it was okay and acceptable for them to smoke.

But the world has changed.

With increasingly powerful and connected “always on” technology, the modern citizen is smarter, more connected, more informed and more skeptical than at any other time in the history of our country.

Companies have learned this truth and have come to the realization that the old ways of delivering their messages and attempting to manipulate their customers no longer work. Consumers vote companies “in and out of office” on a daily basis with how they choose to spend their money. So understanding customers’ needs and expectations is crucial.

Smart companies know it’s no longer enough to rely on numbers, demographics or life stage to understand their customer. They can’t send out a 10-question survey and expect to get to the real root of what’s important. They understand that very few of their customers would participate in a survey — and if it’s over the phone, whole generations don’t have or even answer their phones.

Instead, companies realize they must truly listen to and establish relationships with their customers. Companies must be authentic and connected deeply to their customers to be successful.

Today’s citizen is no different from today’s consumer, but politicians still rely on the old ways of sending and receiving messages from those they represent. They believe they still control the message and that they are somehow unaffected by the amount of information their constituents can access and the channels they use to talk about their concerns.

Politicians have missed the fact that the rest of their constituents’ world, from their local big-box store to their toilet paper, strives to meet their expectations and understand their true needs. This lack of awareness on the part of politicians speaks volumes to just how out of touch they are with the people they serve. It also explains why the approval rating of Congress is at an all-time low.

When it comes to courting votes in the next election, politicians needs to start thinking more like companies that are courting consumers at the cash register. They must connect meaningfully with constituents through authentic, face-to-face interaction — not through bulk mailings or carefully word-smithed press statements.

Younger voters in particular will see through the veneer just as they see through the veneer of traditional top-down marketing. Without a dramatic change, it will take new generations of politicians with practical experience in the new economy to truly affect a meaningful change and understand how to do what we the people really want.

One of the greatest things about America and American citizens is that we are resourceful, and we will figure out ways to work around the systems that don’t work.

Eric Holtzclaw is the founder and CEO of Laddering Works, a research firm that specializes in unlocking product and service potential for Fortune 500 and other companies. He is the author of “Laddering: Unlocking the Potential of Consumer Behavior.”