Mass Marketing Lessons From the US Presidential Election

The recent US presidential election has seen Barack Obama returned to the White House in one of the most hard-fought elections in recent memory. Putting aside the politics, there’s some very interesting marketing going on underneath it all.

What’s really remarkable about the final result is that despite the rhetoric that the Republicans were closing the gap (and the swing in the nationwide popular vote supported this) and that this election was going down to the wire, it all ended fairly abruptly after 7 of the 9 ‘swing states’ fell to Obama very quickly following the close of the polls. An eighth, Florida, took some more time to count but it too went to Obama within a few days.

Now whilst the realm of US presidential elections may seem a far cry from the Australian marketing landscape, there are some big lessons for marketers to come out of it.

In particular, if there was any doubt left, it very clearly showed that the era of mass marketing is well and truly over.

Now many would argue this statement and point to the fact that both sides spent record amounts of money on campaign advertising across a range of mediums. But whilst both sides did spend large sums of money on ‘mass market’ mediums, such as television, the marketing team behind the Obama camp did anything but mass market.

Romney’s campaign enjoyed significant support amongst what might be described as the “stereotypical American.” Caucasian males aged over 40 (picture Homer Simpson) supported Romney over Obama in the vicinity of 3 to 1, and voters over the age of 65 favoured Romney 56% of the time.

The average American “customer” supported the Republican’s “offering” by a significant margin and the Obama camp knew that.

As a result, the level of sophistication behind the marketing effort from the Democrats is truly staggering.

Knowing their path to the White House laid with the niche groups, the Obama camp set out establishing a ultra-targeted marketing campaign on a grand scale.

They opened 3 times as many field offices as Romney, centralised mainly in the battleground states. They phoned, door knocked and advertised only the key messages that would resonate with each demographic, all the while building a database of potential supporters that would be the envy of any marketer in the world. This database could then be followed up in the days and hours before voting began.

And like any good marketer, Obama had a message for each niche market.

  • For the 5% of Americans who identify as homosexual, Obama’s gay rights position was far more liberal than Romney’s. He won that demographic with a 76% majority.
  • For the Hispanic community, his views on immigration and citizenship were again more favourable than Romney’s. He won 71% of that demographic.
  • For the younger generations, he pushed education reforms with college loans, winning 60% of the sub-30 vote (and getting them to vote in record numbers).
  • He also won 93% of the African-American vote, and 55% of the female vote nationwide (although he was helped here by some gaffes from Republican senate candidates on the issue of abortion in cases of rape).

Obama didn’t have a core supporter base (or customer base in marketing terms), he had countless niche markets which when combined together resulted in more votes (or sales) than his opponent in the right states.

But it didn’t end simply with market segmentation either. His campaign volunteers were instructed to focus on those markets which generally supported his positions, and put their effort into getting them to the voting booth.

In a country such as the US, where voting is voluntary, the battle is not just about getting a voter to support your side but actually about having them make the effort to go to the polling booth and put a tick in the right box.

What the Obama camp did, considerably more effectively than Romney’s, was identify who those people were, market the right messages to them and give them the “call to action” that would get them to the polls.

The results speak for themselves. In the 9 states that were supposed battleground states, states that theoretically should have been a “flip of the coin” scenario, Obama won 8 of them. And he won them convincingly in the end. Only Florida took more than a few hours to determine the result.

So the question then becomes, what does this mean for Australian marketers?

For me, it’s pretty clear. Be careful of blindly targeting the “mass market,” the “average customer,” or some other generalised version of your target market. The use of in-depth customer databases (CRMs) combined with the right messaging, even when that’s across mediums such as TV, is the new way to market.

After all, micro-targeting customers, on a grand scale, has just won arguably the hardest market share to get in the world, the American voter.