Brown vs. Coakley: a lesson in Generations and Marketing in the Networked Era

Political pundits were ablaze over the weekend dissecting the special election held in Massachusetts last week, where at first glance it seemed an outsider republican ousted the democratic front runner for the legendary Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat. I say the early headlines reflected a preliminary analysis because it seems the democratic candidate Martha Coakley may never have really been the front runner, and once again an institution was out of touch with its audience.

A generational-divide?

We are still waiting for the official voter statistics from Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office, but I am sure we will find a large number of younger residents voted for Brown. Not because there is an ideological shift amongst this cohort (all data suggests there is not) but because Brown ran a campaign whose message was delivered in a tone and style that connected with younger voters, and was delivered using mediums they embrace.

Coakley, by contrast, ran an old-school campaign; where the state’s long-powerful party served her up as the right choice because; well, because they told us so. And that’s how things work in the bluest of blue states, right? Wrong. This is not Mike Dukakis’ Massachusetts and the Kennedy’s don’t actually run the state. Turns out things have changed since 1985 and no one told the Boomers on Beacon Hill.

I am not sure how democrats thought a generation that is self-reliant and anti-institutional (Gen X) and a generation that needs to be included in the process (Gen Y) would react positively to Coakley’s approach.

Benjamin Franklin called it…

Customer insights, like fish, begin to smell after three days.

So how did Coakley fall out of alignment with voters? Marketers know very well what happened; she let her customer data get stale.

The Coakley campaign worked off the erroneous assumption that recent elections were an endorsement for democrats in perpetuity. True, voters frustratingly reacted to years of republican rule that delivered poor results, but that was then, and today is different. Turns out voters are disengaged and frustrated with all of Washington. Her opponent paid attention to what the customer was saying and quickly crafted a message around their frustrations (good post on this concept at the Savvy B2B Marketing blog).

The power of the network

Having listened to customer concern and crafting a message around it, the Brown campaign then leveraged the same viral and social media marketing playbook that President Obama used to get elected: he galvanize his customer base to engage them in the process and then gave them the tools to promote his brand. This included leveraging their own online community (Brown Brigade), effectively using existing social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc), and even launching a widget called the “voter bomb” which allowed voters to blast messages of support to their personal networks.

All of these tools represent how an organization can utilize Web 2.0 technologies to empower their customer base to become brand ambassadors and spread the word to their networks, on their terms. The latter being as important as the former.

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