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5 Things Corporate Sponsors Can Learn from the 2016 U.S. Election

5 Things Corporate Sponsors Can Learn from the 2016 U.S. Election

5 Minute Read

• Sponsors can draw key learnings on message articulation and resource allocation from political candidates.

• Campaigns - and corporate sponsors - view different markets with varying levels of strategic importance. Spending resources where they have the most impact is critical in both politics and sponsorship.

• Voters crave candidates with an authentic message. Sponsors demonstrating support for a certain cause must ensure they have credibility as a supporter.

Political campaigns are an exercise in brand management. The questions asked inside campaign operations are similar to those asked inside marketing boardrooms: what types of issues should we support? What do we stand for? Is our message digestible to consumers and differentiated from our competitors? And, beyond all else, is our message driving results?

As the U.S. election season continues, and the field of candidates has narrowed, it is those who have managed their brand most effectively who remain. MKTG provides 5 key learnings that sponsorship marketers can learn from the 2016 U.S. Election. 

1. Allocation of scarce resources is essential to victory

Campaigns must constantly make trade-offs with respect to both where they are spending their money and where the candidate is spending their time. Winnable regions are often prioritized versus wasting money and time in a region where the candidate is unlikely to have success. For example, in the Democratic primary races, Hillary Clinton spent little time campaigning in Bernie Sanders’ home state of Vermont, given Sanders’ significant lead and likelihood of victory.

Corporate sponsors have finite budgets as well. Factors such as business need, employee presence, and competitor activity often dictate market priority. Brands can leverage sponsorship to protect strategic markets with increased investment or as a launching pad in a developing market- and can even benefit from using it to satisfy both objectives. While resource allocation in marketing is not as black and white as it is in politics (there can be more than one winner in marketing), the idea of tradeoffs is still a reality in sponsorship. 

2. Message discipline drives breakthrough and recall but can be limiting

Political candidates have a tendency to speak in soundbites, constantly reinforcing their positions and key messages. Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders has been applauded for his intense focus on the issues of financial regulation and a corrupt campaign finance system. By staying on message, Sanders has performed well amongst voters with economic anxieties. But message discipline has its risks as well. Candidates who never stray from the same talking points can be viewed as one-dimensional or appear robotic and scripted, as former Republican candidate Marco Rubio was accused of being.  

Corporate sponsors seeking a transference of specific brand attributes or equity in a certain property can also benefit from continuity and message reinforcement. Sponsors who activate consistently are more likely to have their message breakthrough in a cluttered marketing landscape. However, brands must be conscious of message discipline as well. Adapting your activation narrative on a property by property basis or evolving your message over time are essential strategic tools to overcome consumer fatigue. Bell’s Let Talk initiative year-over-year has helped to authenticate the brand’s support of mental health. But the creative articulation of the campaign has evolved to avoid becoming stale.  

3. Must balance playing to your base and winning independents

Campaigns win by either winning undecided voters or by increasing turnout amongst their supporters. Two candidates for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz and John Kasich differ in this respect. While Cruz has a defined base of socially conservative voters, Kasich’s moderate positions are targeting independent voters who may be undecided between a Democrat and a Republican.

Sponsors can also face this dynamic in how they opt to activate. They can either activate to drive customer acquisition (to win undecided voters) or they can reward their current customers with exclusive experiences (play to their base). Virgin Mobile’s sponsorship of music festival Osheaga, in which they offered early ticket access and enhanced stage views for customers was an effort to increase loyalty amongst existing clients. Both approaches are valid, but depend on consumer behaviour and business objectives.

4. Social media as price of entry versus a competitive advantage

Barack Obama’s 2008 victory is recognized as the first time a major campaign leveraged social media to organize voter turnout and extend the reach of its message. It was in 2008 that Twitter was just beginning to gain popularity and social media networks like Snapchat and Instagram had yet to be created.  Eight years ago, social media was a major competitive advantage for those who were early adopters. In 2016, a social media presence for campaigns has become more table stakes. Nobody will win an election due to their Twitter presence, but those who are not active on social can be conspicuous by their absence. 

Social media extensions in sponsorship activation have become an expectation for sponsors. Social media must be at the heart of an activation plan versus serve as a tactical overlay. At the 2016 Oscar’s, retail sponsor Kohl’s leveraged this approach. The brand created the Oscar challenge allowing people via Facebook to challenge their friends in predicting the winners. People could see how they ranked through leaderboards and top players could receive exclusive prizes. Kohl’s also offered a second-screen experience on Periscope and Twitter, inviting users to participate in Saturday Night Live actress Vanessa Bayer’s Oscar party.

5. Mind the authenticity gap

One indicator of how successful a candidate is going to be in an election is the perception of that candidate’s “authenticity”. According to a New York Times / CBS poll taken in December, 76% of Republican voters believe that Donald Trump “says what he believes,” rather than “saying what people want to hear”. Voters often find it refreshing to see a candidate who truly believes in their positions and will reward this attribute with votes.

Authenticity is essential in corporate sponsorship as well. Brands who invest to support a certain property genre must ensure they are credible in their support - an issue that is particularly prevalent in the cause sponsorship space. In 2009, RBC - who through their Blue Water Project has pledged $50 million over a 10-year period to water protection charities - was challenged for a lack of authenticity on the issue. The Rainforest Acton Network, a group of environmental activists, lobbied RBC to stop financing water polluting energy companies, taking the bank to task for hypocrisy. Sponsors who show support for social issues must take a disciplined internal audit of their operations to ensure they are “walking the talk”.  

Brands can continually monitor election issues to glean insights for their own sponsorship portfolio. As the field of candidates continues to shrink and Americans get closer to electing a President, the importance of maintaining a strong brand will be essential.

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