Adjust Your Messaging on the Fly

The campaigns: Obama, McCain

The tactic: Co-opting and adjusting new slogans and
themes at key moments in the campaign.

The business takeaway: A new message can sell the same
product in a totally different way, and upend a competitor, at least on
the first bounce. But re-messaging too often can backfire.

Election ’08 has had some memorable message
misses. Mike Huckabee’s evangelical bent and crusade for a “Sanctity
of Life Petition” didn’t quite jibe with his “Chuck
Norris Approved” tough-guy ads, for one. But the biggest shift in
messaging, notes a study released by
the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)
, was McCain’s
choice to use the “change” theme after Alaska Governor
Sarah Palin joined the GOP ticket. The pair was cast as “mavericks”
out to change Washington, and the new tagline set the stage for McCain to be
the anti-Bush as the campaign wore on.

Change — most notably hyped with the slogan “Change
You Can Believe In” — had been Obama’s core theme
all along. His campaign was caught by surprise by the McCain repackaging. As
John Dickerson wrote on Slate in September: “Having McCain
talk about change makes Barack Obama happy. Change is his turf. He’s
been talking about change for two years. This also makes Barack Obama
incredulous. Change is his turf. He’s been talking about it for

McCain’s sudden switch triggered some further
fine-tuning of Obama’s “change” message. The PEJ
noted that the word “change” quickly became less obvious on
the Obama Web site, while on McCain’s site, it is among the 20 most
frequently used words. And “Change You Can Believe In” in
the Obama camp morphed into “Change We Need.” name="OLE_LINK4">

That kind of subtle fine-tuning is something more marketers
could exploit. “If your market conditions or what’s
happening with the buying power in your market change, you need to be able to
adjust and fine-tune your message,” says John Ellett, CEO and
managing partner of the nFusion Group in Austin. “The quicker that
can be done, the more you will be aligned with your market.”

Ellett adds that adjusting messaging is great unless it
leads to buyer — or voter, if you will — confusion. “McCain,
over the past six weeks, has changed his message so many times that people don’t
know what it is anymore,” says Ellett. “McCain understood,
maybe too late, that change was the issue, and that he did have maverick
capabilities that could be leveraged. Marketers of any product need to
understand the ability to move quickly, but don’t get schizophrenic
with your brand in the process. There was a core brand consistency that Obama
has stuck with, and that McCain has lost.”

Additional reporting by John Maas.