A president is, first and foremost, the Chief Marketing Officer for the United States of America. This individual refines and expands the vision for the country, helps to align the value citizens receive with the taxes they pay, negotiates relationships with other countries, and communicates a message that (hopefully) moves millions of people to think and act in new ways. But most people don’t think about a president as a CMO. Yes, this person is an executive manager, a politician, and a historical figure, but when we examine the broad scope of the role, it’s more marketer than any of these other things. The Marketer in Chief project relates lesser-known, but still telling anecdotes about each of the 44 US presidents* with modern consumer-marketing situations, both successes and failures. In addition to my own perspectives, I am engaging the top presidential historians to bring their excellent analysis to a new audience with a fresh approach. You’ll see that presidents and organizations face the same challenges, solving them—and failing to solve them—in bizarre and surprising ways. You will never look at the president the same way again.
* If you’re wondering, Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms. That’s why Donald Trump is the 45th President.
Why me? A marketer?
“Our competitor has compared our product to a lottery ticket. The problem is, they’re right. It does look like a lottery ticket.”
“The word ‘meat’ is in our company name. We sell a lot of meat. That means we need to produce meat like a factory builds cars. That type of ‘industrial’ meat production is a major contributor to climate change. Many of our biggest clients and stakeholders (perhaps rightly) think we’re part of the problem.”
“I think we should accept only Bitcoin as payment for registrations to our conference.”
Jason, you’re our CMO. What do you think we should do?
To most people, when they hear the word “marketing”, they immediately translate it to advertising, promotion, or messaging. If they’re being less kind, marketing is spin, puffery, or lying. That’s understandable. By some estimates, the average American consumer sees more than 5,000 distinct pieces of promotional marketing each day. But as voluminous as that seems, thousands of advertisements simply represent what we can see. To a Chief Marketing Officer – or CMO – marketing is a much broader concept. Modern marketing is a mix of four distinct, but interrelated, concepts:
- Product: The set of features unique to a product or service.
- Price: The exchange of value required to match buyer and seller.
- Place: The channels or locations where those transactions take place.
- Promotion: The communication strategies and tactics employed.
Each of my clients’ situations featured a complex interaction of all four of these factors, not simply advertising or promotion. They had no easy answers, no matter what listicle LinkedIn article or 20-minute TED Talk might claim. Serving as the Chief Marketing Officer for each of these organizations at some point during my 22-year career, my challenge was (and continues to be) to find answers that balance competing interests both inside and outside the organization.
But I’ve had an unfair advantage.
In addition to my day job as a CMO for hire, I’m a history buff. On a particularly heady day, I might even call myself an amateur historian. Just as I picked up the phone from my “lottery ticket” client, I happened to be reading a history of mid-19th century presidential campaigns. I was interested in the run-up to the Civil War, and I was curious how campaign politics played into the worsening divide. In the 1840 presidential contest, opponents of William Henry Harrison struck a nerve with voters in the early stages of the campaign claiming that the “old man” (Harrison was 68) would rather “sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider” than run the country. Instead of rebutting the charges, Harrison owned the insult, making it the centerpiece slogan of his campaign. The homespun, honest message resonated with voters and led to a 234 to 60 electoral college win in the November election.
I couldn’t help but see the connection. No, my client’s product wasn’t a lottery ticket, nor anything related to gaming or gambling. It was an adhesive, biometric monitoring product…that bore an uncanny resemblance to a scratch-off lottery ticket. Their competitor had (smartly) positioned their product as a “sure thing” based on more sophisticated technology, and conversely, positioned my client’s product as a “risky gamble”. It was working. Sales were drying up as my client attempted to attack the competitor’s claims head on. They were stuck, and that’s why they called me.
Applying Harrison’s lesson, we took control of the situation, transforming the lottery ticket insult into a complete, multi-pronged marketing campaign whereby customers would “win” by buying our product. It worked. Within a few months, sales rebounded as customers appreciated how easy my client’s product operated compared to the more complex technical solutions offered by the competition. That’s not to say the strategy was sure to succeed. Hillary Clinton used the same strategy to own the “Nasty Woman” insult hurled at her from Donald Trump. My approach was risky. Would it turn out like Harrison? Or more like Clinton? I got lucky. It could have turned the other way.
Nevertheless, I thought to myself: perhaps a 170-year old campaign strategy still works?
My meat client’s situation was different. Instead of a promotional issue, they faced a problem with their core product—meat itself, and more specifically, industrialized production of meat. It was difficult for the company’s shareholders to see that the way they sourced their meat products (mega farms, often in other countries) was unsustainable. Teddy Roosevelt faced the same problem with the forestry industry in the 1900s. Loggers were concerned about today’s paycheck and tomorrow’s profits, not an empty prairie 20 years from now when they would be long gone. As president, he created the national park system mainly from force of will, bringing the public along with him to beat business interests into submission. My client needed to do the same: change its product model now, before it was too late. It ran an end-run around its shareholders by convincing its customers to apply the pressure from the grass roots.
Hmm: maybe the modern issue of sustainability isn’t so modern after all.
More recently, my “Bitcoin” client wasn’t an arms smuggler on the dark web, but rather hosting a technical conference focused on disruptive technology—the implications of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin factored prominently on the agenda. It seemed to make sense to force participants to pay in the new currency. Yes, it was a pricing gimmick, but a gimmick that related to the ethos of the conference. But here’s the rub with money in general, and pricing specifically: no matter the currency involved (whether dollars, pesos, or Bitcoins) pricing boils down to belief. Did potential conference participants believe in Bitcoin as a way to exchange value? It may seem silly to us now, but that was the same question citizens of the new United States of America asked as George Washington took the first oath of office. Americans at the time used all sorts of money—British pounds, Spanish Pesos, and even state-issued currencies. It took Washington’s administrative vision and the financial genius of his Treasury Secretary (Alexander Hamilton) to instill the faith necessary in the financial system to create the US Dollar.
It finally dawned on me: George Washington was much more than our first president. He was our first Chief Marketing Officer.
That speaks to the question at the heart of the Marketer In Chief project:
What could we learn about today’s biggest challenges if we reimagined the role of the president as a Chief Marketing Officer instead of a politician?
Certainly, the US president isn’t the only important historical figure that could serve as the basis for this question, but they’re highly visible ones, and we benefit from nearly four dozen unique examples. Many people—even those outside the United States—look to these larger-than-life figures for inspiration and guidance. Because I am not a historian (and even if I were, I could not have all the knowledge I needed on all 44 presidents), I intend to invite the historical community to participate in this project with me. It is the combination of our perspectives that I hope will add value to a bigger question:
How could a fresh set of eyes help us get “unstuck” as a democratic society?
Be honest: when you first read this document about a marketer tackling presidential politics, where did your mind go? Trump. Obama. Clinton. And right after that, how did you feel? Sick to your stomach. Angry. Indignant. I know the feeling, and it sucks. (If you want to make it worse, spend a few minutes on Twitter.) Let me make the case that one of the major reasons we’re in our present predicament is that we have been forced to absorb presidential history specifically, and politics in general, through one of a handful of perspectives:
- Right versus left: Polarization leads to tribalism, anger, and poor decisions.
- Centrism: The right/left’s milquetoast cousin. A good compromise leaves no one happy.
- Historical Trends and Forces: Do you enjoy being lectured by academics? Neither do I. It’s the tyranny of the “interesting”, and no one seems to be listening.
As a practicing Chief Marketing Officer, I cannot promise a solution to all of our society’s problems. Nor would I attempt to argue that other perspectives offer no value. That’s both foolish and arrogant. But marketing is a practical perspective, not an ideological one, and its voice is missing in the dialog. Marketing takes a stand, and never sits on the fence. Marketing celebrates results, and abhors the merely interesting. Looking at presidents through a marketing perspective has shown me solutions to problems I never would have considered otherwise. If I can share those stories in a practical way, perhaps the Marketer in Chief project can serve as a field guide to a new way of considering other issues as well. It will give people a different set of tools to use in public debates that shifts the discussion from ideology to practicality.
It’s worth a shot.