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Lessons for Business from Political Language Strategy

The business community often sees politics as being in a world of its own, with little relevance to what it takes to win in the competition for commerce or customers. That’s a mis-perception – and a huge missed opportunity. In reality, there is nothing more high-stakes than having a few short months to be elected to a role or sent into obscurity. At maslansky + partners, whether we are providing television analysis of current political narratives or helping to craft these messages ourselves for our clients, we know that there are 3 lessons every brand can apply from successful campaign language strategy to their own market penetration goals.  

The first lesson is that messaging that wins is simple, memorable, and true to your audience.  We went back through a 100 years of U.S. presidential campaign slogans and you can almost always guess who won based the simplicity and emotional impact of their slogan.  For example, in 1996, Bill Clinton’s “Building a bridge to the twenty-first century,” suggested Americans were all on one unified journey to the future.  The slogan was about the voter.  Who didn’t want to cross that bridge? Compare that to, “Bob Dole. A Better Man. For a Better America,” which tells us about Bob Dole but doesn’t convey key points.  Better for whom?  Better how?  In 2008, Barack Obama had Hope and Change, which we still remember today because it captivated and addressed what many Americans were looking for in that moment. It was simple and visceral.  In 2016, Donald Trump ran with Make America Great Again, which deeply resonated with an audience that heard, “I haven’t forgotten you. Your jobs aren’t gone forever.” Too often, we are tempted to make our messaging overly complex when the solution is an easily remembered, easily repeated symbolic cadence that becomes the master narrative.

The second critical element is using language to frame the conversation effectively.  As communicators, we often forget to look at the issue we’re presenting from an outsider’s perspective.  If we’ve stopped connecting with an audience it might be time to ask, “How do I reach somebody who’s stopped listening?” For example, politicians from both parties trying to put more money behind the stopping of human trafficking have had trouble getting their constituents to care with urgency. The initial framing of the message was that given that nearly everyone is united against drug trafficking, if the word ‘human’ was inserted, it would transfer to a painful picture of human beings being bought and sold. Instead, the word ‘trafficking’ dominated and actually diluted the impact of the word ‘human’.  People stopped picturing women and children, and the words became almost meaningless.  Then recently, Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, released a video renaming it the slave trade.  That framing deeply personalized the issue and finally raised the level of alarm politicians had been trying to create. The lesson is that if your message is failing to create the kind of traction you’re looking for, it may be the answer to update the language with plainer, bolder impact to get and keep attention.

Third, it’s critical not to rely too heavily on data to make your case. It used to be that if a respected politician communicated a position supported by data, the message would be successful.  Now it’s much more important to establish credibility around an idea based on personification.  For example, when it comes to gun control, politicians in favor of it constantly repeat that 90% of Americans support background checks.  But that wasn’t moving the needle on getting legislation passed. When change came, it wasn’t be because legislators finally believed the data. Instead, after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, what worked was the capturing of emotion to match the change in policy. Even Republican lawmakers were able to break from their party and vote in favor of some measure of gun control because they had the emotional support of their constituents. The personification of the message changes the way people feel.

Ultimately, politics can teach business something winning. To understand your audience, what they need to hear, and how to reach them with clarity, credibility, and urgency, it’s good business to pay attention to those who do well in politics. They’ve had to reach audiences for a living.