Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Eureka! Branding and Politics

Blink author Malcolm Gladwell defines heuristics as "mental shortcuts that have the effect of helping us better navigate the world." Better yet, the word heuristic is derived from the Greek work Eureka.

Decision Science Blog is devoted to heuristic, and last month Dan Goldstein published a fabulous post about the effect of brand recognition on how we buy.

The super short version of an already short article: Wayne D. Hoyer and Steven P. Brown conducted a series of peanut butter taste tests.

Part 1: In a blind taste test, participants could accurately recognize the higher-quality peanut butter.

Part 2: They gave a second group of participants samples in labeled jars--only the high-quality peanut butter was in a no-name jar, and the low-quality peanut butter was in a recognized name-brand jar. Guess which one participants said tasted better? The low-quality, name brand jar.

Part 3: The exact same peanut butter goes in three jars--the peanut butter is the same, but two jars have no-name brands and the third jar has a major brand. Guess which jar "tasted best?" The name brand jar.

What an incredible testament to the power of branding (and also to the gullibility of consumers).

Please erase the notion of taste-testing from your heads (for your own good), and we'll move this discussion over to the sphere of politics.

The point of the experiment was that if your brand is strong, it doesn't matter what is in the package. People stop believing their own taste buds, their own first-hand experiences, their own empirical evidence. They are swayed by the power of the brand.

In heuristic terms, the recognition heuristic makes a prediction that in specific domains, recognized (previously-encountered) items will be chosen over unrecognized (completely novel) items.

It seems that the Republican party has taken this commercial-sphere wisdom to heart more than Democrats have.

Republicans seem willing to vote for anything wrapped in the Republican mantle. For example, anyone who dispassionately and objectively compares Bush's policy positions in his first term of office could tell you that he has nothing to do with the traditional platform of the Republican party. (Anyone old enough to remember when Republicans *delivered* fiscal responsibility?) And yet, Republicans voted Bush back into office in 2004. Granted, a wide range of factors outside the purvey of this discussion affected that election. My point is that large numbers of Republicans in 2004, and even with Bush's plummeting polling numbers large numbers of Republicans today accept Bush as a "high-quality political" because they recognize Brand Republican.

So what is the lesson for Democrats here? -- Use the power of those heuristic mental shortcuts to help your voters navigate the political world.

The recognition heuristic explains why visibility and name recognition are so important in election campaigns.

Lesson: don't run no-name candidates. Don't recruit candidates at the last minute. Cultivate a farm team. Develop their following (and their political skills) at the local level and constantly expand their sphere of influence until they can run as shoe-ins for higher positions.

Get serious about branding. Can you spot a Democratic yard sign, or bumper sticker, or T-shirt at 50 paces? How about a Democratic web site? No, because there is no branding consistency. Can you spot a Democrat in a policy debate? Not reliably, and not on her or his own merits--only by eliminating candidates of obvious other affiliations. The Democratic party needs a recognizable platform of issues they will fight for at the federal, state, and local levels. They need a style guide for Team Democrat that includes policy, language, art design, best practices...they need a turn-key franchise manual so that every Democratic operation at any level in the country meets standards consistently for interacting with the public, serving the community, and representing Team Democrat to the country.

There aren't really any pearls of wisdom here that I and many others haven't written before...I just hope that bringing the discussion down to the level of rigged peanut butter taste tests will help it all make more sense.

I owe the fabulous Martha Bridegam an extended discussion on whether or not voters are consumers...Martha, I'm contributing this post to the discussion and hope you'll reduce my tab accordingly. ;)

Update This post also appears at The Broad View under the title "George Bush = Bad Peanut Butter" and at Tilting at Windmills under the title "Good Peanut Butter = Good Politics."

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