Saturday, January 06, 2007


In a recent posting, The 2008 Democrat, Barry Lieba makes the observation that
a lot of politics is sales and marketing, and sales and marketing have many similarities across domains. Sell a car, sell a political platform, sell yourself to the voters... they have a lot in common.
This statement is more accurate and literal than most people believe. I hereby submit the following file for your consideration.

I took a technical marketing class at Bell Labs (BTL) in about 1985. Normally, I wouldn't sign up for such a topic, but my manager discovered a conflict after she enrolled and offered to let me have the slot. I took it, thinking maybe I would learn something about marketing. Did I ever. To teach the course, BTL flew in a professor from a Virginia university each week to present the course for eight weeks. The professor had invented a multivariate analysis technique that could turn consumer preferences as expressed in structured questionnaires into two-dimensional vectors that highlighted the differences among the choices. The professor offered "lite beer" as his best example. Historically, there were two basic beer choices - cheap stuff and regular beer. According to the professor, the group that drank the cheap stuff preferred to drink hard and alone. The group drinking the regular stuff preferred to drink in groups (sociable) but wanted something that tasted good. The cheap stuff didn't taste very good, and the regular stuff was too filling, not allowing them to drink for the duration of the social activities.

Sounding familiar yet?

The questionnaire had taken many dimensional variables (self-perception, sociability, activity/sport, taste, desire to get drunk, and so on) and remapped them into two dimensions. There were a few clusters of responses on the resulting 2D chart - clusters that represented existing drinkers satisfied with existing products, and a cluster representing customers with unmet needs. This last cluster became lite beer. Low in alcohol, allowing one to drink a (relatively) large volume without getting drunk, and distinctively flavorful. Pitch it to active, social people who perceive themselves as attractive to the opposite sex.

The professor did exactly the same analysis for his political candidate (Reagan) and his opponents (Democrats). He analyzed the candidates of interest and mapped them onto a 2D plane. He found that Senator John Glenn was the strongest competitor to Reagan and Mondale was the least. The resulting strategy was simple - ignore Glenn and respond vigorously to Mondale, exaggerating the differences. This had the effect of making Glenn irrelevant (Reagan couldn't even be bothered to respond, so how could Glenn be a credible opponent?) and pushing the Mondale caricature to prominance (Reagan was aghast that Mondale could seriously propose surrendering to the Soviets).

I don't think the above gives a sufficient explanation of the technique, but it's all the detail I can recall from the time. The point is that it was my first exposure to the blatent expression of the idea that Presidential candidates were to be sold like cheap beer. As we go through the process that leads to the selection of candidates for 2008, I hope - perhaps in vain - that we'll consider the candidates on the basis of their merits and not on the cynical manipulators who want us to look carefuly at the "New and Improved Label".

Note: it appears that Joe Owades is generally viewed as the inventor of lite beer.

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