Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Save Your Email Advocacy Program with a Strong Brand

With increasingly wide adoption of advocacy email best practices, and with so many progressive groups so closely aligned politically, some advocacy groups, candidates for office, and others in the progressive political email universe are having a hard time standing out from the crowd. What can they do to differentiate themselves?

This is what branding was invented for.

Take Coca-Cola, by some measures the most valuable brand in the world. Its flagship soft drink is pretty good, but while the thirsty connoisseur can taste the difference between colas, the Coke product isn’t dominant because of taste alone. Instead, Coca-Cola differentiates and positions itself through a set of emotional connections, relationships, and trust — also known as its brand.

Product attributes like keeping women from farting may have played an early role in driving Coca-Cola’s brand, before it focused on emotional connections and relationships.
A lot of progressive organizations that run an email advocacy program are trapped instead as what author David Aaker calls “product-attribute-based brands” — that is, brands that are defined almost entirely by what they peddle or do. In the commercial world, this could mean a smart phone company that defines itself by selling larger phones. Samsung, for example may tend to make larger phones than Apple, but it can’t rely on that difference. If it does, it will immediately lose the advantage when Apple starts making bigger phones, too. Fortunately for Samsung, their smart phone tag line “the next big thing is here” does more to convey that their phones are a big deal than a big size.

In the political advocacy world, this could mean a progressive organization that defines itself as being in favor of, say, Social Security. That can be a good niche, but you lose your dominance as soon as another progressive group comes along that is also in favor of Social Security. This illustrates problem #2 on Aaker’s list of weaknesses with product-attribute-based brand identities — easy to copy. Such brands…

Fail to Differentiate: A product attribute can be extremely important to customers, but if all brands are perceived to be adequate on this dimension, it does not differentiate the brand…In the hotel business, cleanliness is always rated as one of the attributes most important to consumers. Because all hotels are expected to be clean, however, it will not be a differentiator.

Are Easy to Copy: A brand that relies on the superior performance of a key attribute will eventually get beaten on that attribute, even if it is continuously improving the product, because the attribute is a fixed target for competitors.

Assume a Rational Customer: Product attribute research and the resulting strategies usually assume that customers obey a rational decision-making model. The rational model suggests that customers collect information about product attributes, adjust the information to reflect the relative importance of the attributes, and then make a reasoned judgment. The reality is that customers experience mistrust, confusion, or impatience in most contexts, and that they do not (or cannot) seek out and process objective information about the brands in the category. In addition, many customers do not care as much about function as they do about style, status, reassurance, and other less functional benefits.

Attribute research on trucks, for example, suggests that durability, safety features, options, and power are the most important attributes. Yet style, comfort, and being “fun” to drive are more likely to influence the decisions of consumers who often cannot or will not admit that such frills are really important to them.

Limit Brand Extension Strategies: The fact that Heinz means slow-pouring, rich ketchup may limit its role in extension strategies, whereas the association of Contadina with Italians provides more flexibility [e.g. the flexibility to introduce a line of Italian bread crumbs in addition to the brand’s traditional lines of tomato sauces –WB].

Reduce Strategic Flexibility: If a brand becomes associated with a single product attribute, the ability of that brand to adjust when the attribute’s relevance declines is inhibited.

The point about trucks is particularly important in this context: an advocacy group that wants to engage activists on Social Security must certainly be perceived as strong on that attribute, but online activism has an important impulsive component as well. Call it the online activism equivalent of “fun to drive” — there is undoubtedly some element of personality or attitude that will help to differentiate, clarify the value proposition, and so forth.

In a future post, I’ll tackle more specific suggestions for advocacy groups to break out of their product-attribute-based brand traps.