This isn’t a story about politics; it’s a story about messaging. In particular, it’s about how (and where) you communicate your message in 2018.
Quick disclaimer: exactly nothing I’m saying here is intended to be a broadside at any political campaign. However, if a candidate with a massive war chest, tons of structural advantages, and a fairly definable target audience couldn’t cut through marketplace clutter enough to avoid a curbstomping, it’s probably time for you to take a long look at your messaging efforts.
Not long ago, we had us a California gubernatorial primary, and it told a really bizarre story. (You have to love that the first syllable in the word for the election for a state’s highest official is “goober.”)
Y’see, there’s this guy named Antonio Villaraigosa. He was mayor of the biggest city in California for eight years (as in, the L.A. metro is almost four times the size of the Bay Area or anything else in the Golden State), and while he’s hardly universally loved, he’s more popular than not. He’s got huge name recognition. He’s a member of the state’s plurality ethnic group, and he was the only widely-known candidate to belong to that group.
Oh, and he had a boatload of bucks – about $35 million of them – to spend on the campaign. There’s just no way he shouldn’t have fared well in a state whose political ideology tracks pretty closely with his own.
In fact, he got stomped on his home turf by a guy from San Francisco, losing by about as many votes in L.A. County as his rival got in total in his hometown of Frisco. (And in case you don’t know it, Frisco is an insulting way we Angelenos refer to the town up north. We don’t care much about them, but they absolutely despise us, so we like to tweak them whenever we can.)
While he was at it, hizzoner was doubled up at the polls by a guy with one-sixth of his campaign cash on the strength of a couple Trump tweets. And yes, party politics played a huge role in that, but the point is that, in driving sales (and, in politics, a closed sale is called a “vote”), a couple tweets from the right place were worth twice as much as Antonio’s $28 million cash advantage over Republican John Cox. (Have I mentioned that Republicans aren’t even the second party in California at this point?) A more telling number might be this: with 2.5 times as much money as another candidate from his own party, who frankly, lacks the former mayor’s name recognition, the mayor got about half again as many votes.
How could that be? In the absence of some overwrought research study that will show up down the road, let’s consider four key areas here: (1) brand, (2) quality of the messaging, (3) messaging channels, and (4) unique factors related to Mr. Villaraigosa’s chosen career vertical, politics.
Let’s dispense with #1 and #4 first.
- The mayor’s brand is – shock! – strikingly in line with the other democrats in the campaign, including the guy who stomped him and the guy who almost caught him with 40% of his money. The same basic brand was good enough to win the primary and to almost catch the mayor with a fraction of his campaign funds.
- Were there “political” reasons for the rout? To an extent, sure. Here – read all about them if you’d like. I can’t state this strongly enough, however: politics tells the smaller part of the story. (For example, the analysis I linked to makes a big deal out of the fact that the mayor “only” got into the race 19 months ago.)
Messaging problems tell the bigger story here. The candidate never crafted a message that cut through marketplace clutter, and he never got his message out in a way that his target audience heard and retained.
In terms of the message itself, what’d I say about brand? Unless you’re parsing this nonsense with a much finer-toothed comb than the average (or even above average) voter, the gap between Villaraigosa, Gavin Newsom, and John Chiang was, effectively, bupkus. In circumstances where your brand is nearly indistinguishable from the competition, how do you distinguish yourself from the competition? With a message that cuts through the clutter, of course.
It didn’t happen. Here’s our guy defining his candidacy. Until he gets twenty seconds into a thirty-second spot, you can’t even tell which political party he belongs to. At no point do you hear him differentiate himself from the other democrats in the field.
Still, the an undifferentiated message should have left A.V. on better footing than he ended up, considering his financial strength. So, that takes us to the question of messaging channels
It’ll be a while before a full analysis of the election is out, so I’m going to lean in part on my easily done analysis and my own experience here. Personally, I received exactly zero campaign messaging from Antonio Villaraigosa.
How could it be that, while I’m an absolutely prime target for a candidate like him, I saw and heard nothing about him? I don’t know. Some points about specific media:
- Television: I watch plenty of it…using an over-the-top provider that licenses two local stations, the NBC and Fox affiliates. (I cut the cord years ago.) I watch those, but I don’t see a ton of local TV. Maybe local television isn’t the right way to reach people like me…much less the young audience that tends to lean democratic, like the candidate, and is more likely to have cut the cord.
- Radio: My first love, of course. I listen to a lot of it, both upper demo (classic rock, sports) and younger-targeted (alternative). Personally, I’d have bought a ton of radio with a big chunk of his $35 mil, but then, I’m biased. That said, while radio still reaches 93% of the market, I wouldn’t be so delusional as to suggest that reaching younger, more democratic-leaning voters can be accomplished solely through radio.
- Print: I read three newspapers digitally, including L.A.’s two biggest print providers. Of course, the New York Times blows both away for news coverage – including an increasing localized commitment to California – and I mostly read the local fishwrappers for sports. Nonetheless, I saw nothing. Given that the politically-active psychographic indexes really high for print, I don’t get it, but then print advertising is plenty easy to miss. Hell, I download the print edition of the L.A. Times every day, and in doing so, I chop all the full page ads out of the .pdf just to limit its size. Print advertising has always been easy to ignore, and that’s ever truer today.
- Digital: Here we go. There’s a lovely Flickr page with lots of photos…and one follower. (In advertising, we call this waste, and somebody wasted a ton of time on Flickr.) There’s a YouTube channel with 805 subscribers; a Twitter account with just south of 20,000 followers, a mere 1.5 million behind the Friscan; and a Facebook account that’s also wayyy behind the candidates he lost to. Again, I saw nada on social. I obviously don’t know how many other Californians did, but given the results and my presence right in the candidate’s wheelhouse…
Something’s clearly fishy in Messagingland.
Let’s finish where we started: if a candidate with a massive war chest, tons of structural advantages, and a clearly definable target audience couldn’t cut through the marketplace clutter enough to avoid a curbstomping, it’s probably time for you to take a long look at yours.
Is your messaging well-targeted? Are you using the right channels? Is your creative good enough to cut through the clutter better than a two-term huge-city mayor with $35 million burning a hole in his pocket?
It’s time to audit, don’cha think?