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Democratic political brands fall into a common business trap

Spending on TV ads in this election is predicted to top $1 billion for the first time in a mid-term, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Apple, the world’s biggest brand, spent about $350 million advertising phones last year. 

So why does everyone love their iPhone but hate their member of Congress?  Do you think Apple would put up with a 14 percent positive rating like Congress has?   

{mosads}To put it bluntly, there’s too much money in campaigns now not to take rigorous advantage of the best thinking in commercial branding. 

Unfortunately, many of the Democratic campaigns that raised so much small-dollar money online this cycle could use more branding expertise.   

Maybe you saw the emails featuring various august leaders of our republic “begging you” for money, predicting “unbelievable disaster,” or promising to double — no, triple! — your contribution.  That cycle of increasing desperation actually has an interesting analog in commercial branding: the price promotion trap. 

Price promotions (or “sales,” as most consumers know them) can help induce future loyal customers to try a product or cover over a rough patch — but they reach “trap” levels when a firm starts to over-rely on them.   

Consumers eventually realize they don’t need to pay full price for anything because it will be cheap again soon, and the firm loses out on valuable results from long-term relationships that come by building trust and connection with loyal consumers. 

Which brings us back to Democratic fundraising emails.  Most campaigns and organizations run very results-oriented programs.  Or think they do, anyway. 

Many Democrats optimize heavily for individual message performance instead of the long term, which is how they end up setting their hair on fire every day.  But this approach is the equivalent of looking at a business’ short-term revenue from a limited-time price promotion.  

It’s how a business falls into a trap, and in the case of Democrats’ losses in 2014 House races, the results of this short-term thinking couldn’t have helped what the Cook Political Report identified as an “epic turnout collapse and motivational deficit” for Democrats. 

What’s a campaign to do?  Campaigns are by definition short-lived, so there’s little incentive to implement best practices with more than a two year payoff horizon.  Moreover, most campaigns operate with a skeleton staff that just doesn’t have the capacity to do sophisticated projection models. 

The bottom line is effective political brand management — and the staff and consultants who get it — are worth campaigns’ investment.  That’s true when they have an iPhone-caliber record to run on and probably even more true when they don’t.

But their friends in the political world who do have incentives to think longer term, like the party committees, must also help them.  Many campaigns already look to organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Democratic Governors Association (DGA) for best practices; it’s time these organizations developed some that reflect true best thinking. 

Bunnett was a senior member of Barack Obama’s groundbreaking email team in Chicago in 2008, and is currently a senior strategist at Trilogy Interactive, a digital agency that engages primarily with Democratic campaigns.

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