You may have noticed that there is a presidential campaign in progress. These are always glorious interludes in which each candidate, in attempting to demonstrate his qualifications to be the political, governmental, and moral leader of the nation, behaves like a squirrelly, deceitful, pandering sack of shit.
Every four years I fantasize about moving to a country where the electorate isn’t so apathetic and ill-informed, where demagogues and morons don’t become credible candidates, where the basic currency of politics isn’t the lie. But I can’t figure out how to get off of earth. So instead I sift through the haystacks of cynicism for a needle of inspiration.
Lo and behold, this time around, something sharp stuck me. It has to do with the extraordinary power of physical proximity.
Endless reportage has focused on the obscene sums of money spent on TV advertising -- much of it unleashed by the Supreme Court’s genuinely unhinged Citizens United ruling that spawned the SuperPACs. An equal amount of attention has been paid to the digital campaign, the battle in social media to exploit Big Data for rallying and raising money from the base. And if it's possible, even more time and ink has been expended on campaign-trail spin, much of it in reaction to those rare, unscripted ejaculations of politician candor known as “gaffes.” (My favorite this cycle: Rick Santorum saying “we will never have the elite, smart people on our side.”)
But for all the obsessive attention to and of the media, what it all often comes down to at crunch time is retail politics: speeches, rope lines, handshakes, baby kissing and humble calls to action: “I’d like to have your vote.” Digital revolution or no, every candidate knows that there is no substitute for pressing the flesh. Mitt Romney has embarked on a mad dash through Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Colorado -- swing states all. President Obama has visited Colorado ten times in 2012, 16 times during his presidency. It isn’t for the skiing.
The most influential factor is not an attack ad or a transcendent convention speech or a running mate with pretty eyes. Rather, it is meeting the electorate, because you can count on votes from the portion of the electorate that gets to meet you.
All of which got me thinking: at a time when brands have less ability to efficiently reach masses of consumers with advertising messages, and thus desperately experiment online and especially in social media to cultivate ongoing relationships, maybe what’s missing is the campaign trail.
Why aren't brands doing more to meet the consumer? Or more to the point, to enable the consumer to meet them?
There's an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Why isn't there a fleet of EverythingElseMobiles? Why can't we take actual and online tours of the M&M factory? The Crest toothpaste factory? The Scotch Tape factory?
Why aren't brands subsidizing local arts and putting on live commercials, introducing us to their products and their people? Why don’t they have pop-up stores offering exhibits about the history and future of soap…or vitamins or telephones? Why aren’t there more newsletters, not propagating corporate PR but revealing the latest in the science and technology in the category? Why aren’t brand managers on listening tours, attached to fun events, taking questions, suggestions and heat from the hoi polloi? Oh, and, “Nice to meet you. We'd love to have your business.”
Of course, I know the answer to all those questions. It has to do with scale. “We sell our CPGs across the globe. Who cares about a popup store in Denver, Colorado? But there are answers to that answer. All those human connections add up, sometimes exponentially, as they travel via social media. Furthermore, it is pointless to compare relationship building to the mass-messaging you can no longer effectively conduct.
Furthermore, every four years, the wages of aloofness and insularity become all too obvious.
“Dragging our butts out to meet a few hundred or a few thousand individuals? We can’t be bothered. We leave unsophisticated marketing like that to the president of the United States."