If there is one thing that billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will be remembered for in his bid to become the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee, it won’t be his views on social issues or foreign policy or healthcare reform. More than likely, he’ll just be the guy who spent a LOT of money trying — and failing — to convince Democratic primary voters that he was the right choice for them.
How much is a LOT? An estimated half a billion dollars in advertising across three months months. And he was prepared to spend more.
As marketers, we can only dream of a seemingly limitless bag of loot for our own brand campaigns. But the reality is that we’re more likely to challenge a big spender than be one. And as Bloomberg’s political competitors showed, it IS possible to compete with the seemingly endless spend and come out on top.
Let’s look at the ways that the political field of “challenger brands” was able to outsmart, rather than outspend, their rival.
When a message is everywhere, it often feels like it’s speaking to everyone. But wide-reaching yet generic messaging can only go so far in motivating a discerning customer to show their support – whether via vote, NRx script, or purchase.
Challenger brands can offer a contrast by focusing their spend and their efforts on smaller audiences, creating personalized messages that allow the brand to align with the individual through what they care about. A highly integrated creative and media team is critical to developing a campaign that is authentic, efficient and targeted in content as much as it is in placement.
Bring in the influencers
Political pundits have pointed to the late endorsements that former Vice President Joe Biden received from other influential politicians as a significant factor in his Super Tuesday success. Whether that goodwill was due to longstanding relationships (in the case of South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn) or an aligned interest (former presidential opponents Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg), these seals of approval expanded Biden’s coalition of supporters.
Rather than attempting to create affinity from scratch, challenger brands should take time and care to create alliances with influencers, KOLs and advocacy groups — entities your audience already trusts — and use that earned equity to elevate your brand’s status. Better still, bring those influencers into the fold to co-create, critique and seed success in new initiatives. Pete Buttigieg might be a strong voice shouting Joe Biden’s name, but his 26 delegates are invaluable advocates to proliferate his message.
Show your emotions
When competing for eyeballs becomes impossible, challenger brands must go for a deeper connection and compete for hearts. Bloomberg’s campaign motto, “Mike will get it done,” feels analogous to a product benefit. A vote for Bloomberg might have been characterized as a vote for efficacy. That’s a sound, logical play.
Meanwhile, the commonly touted slogans for Joe Biden (“A battle for the soul of America”) and Senator Bernie Sanders (“Not me. Us.”) get at an emotional benefit that has resonated more deeply with Democrats, many of whom feel misaligned with the current administration or who feel generally discounted within society. Biden and Bernie are asking their audiences to be a part of something bigger: a community, a cause, a commitment.
Live your values
The definition of clear brand values and the consistent application of these values to both messaging and actions are musts for challenger brands. In the case of the Democratic presidential candidates, Bloomberg strongly supported core Democratic issues such as gun control, climate change and healthcare for nearly 20 years before running for President. Yet at a time when his long-demonstrated support would normally gain him clout with voters, his efforts were undercut by intense scrutiny of several controversial policies during his time as mayor of New York City. His inconsistencies and perceived lack of commitment to his espoused values may have gotten the best of him.
On the other hand, Senator Elizabeth Warren, as both an academic at Harvard University and as an elected politician, has a track record of fighting corruption and putting power in the hands of the people. According to political experts, it was this perceived consistency that may explain why her attacks on Bloomberg during the Las Vegas debate landed so squarely. It was on-brand for her to criticize a candidate for his inconsistent personal and political values.
For all the ways that Bloomberg was outsmarted by his challenger brand rivals, his campaign had several successes that could be re-created by any brand. One that showed up over and over again was his speedy competitive acumen, whether it was putting out a TV spot addressing the coronavirus just 24 hours after it was addressed by President Trump or running paid search advertising that targeted supporters of Amy Klobuchar only hours after she withdrew her candidacy.
Yes, it took dollars to get these messages out to the masses, but it also took organizational commitment and planning. In healthcare, big-budget brands often can’t move at a rapid and tumultuous pace, leaving plenty of opportunities for challengers to seize a competitive advantage. Anticipating these fast-break opportunities and having organizational support in place to move quickly are both key when it comes to capitalizing on a weakness.
A critical characteristic of a successful challenger brand is finding inspiration and insight in the unlikeliest of places. So no matter our political preference, we’ll be obsessively attentive to the presidential campaigns that are playing out in real-time before our eyes, looking for learning opportunities and imaginative marketing moments.
James Talerico is Heartbeat’s president and executive creative director