I’m a closet political strategist. I once had dinner with Paul Begalia an an APG conference and was fascinated by not only by his wit, approach and strategic cunning but also his vision for the world and idealism that he could get it done. I try to avoid the political “commentators,” screamers and sideline reporters. I like to find and follow the big time strategists who really make a difference in real elections. That led me to Karl Rove.
I don’t like Mr. Rove. He’s not a particularly likable guy. But I respect him immensely. He’s brought several innovations to political campaigning and his successes stand on their own.
In the 2004 campaign, while the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam record were going on, I learned about this core Rove piece of wisdom: “Attack an opponent on their strengths.”
At the time as a planner this was a significantly disruptive idea for me. I was always taught to stay away from competitor’s strengths. Marketing conventionality leaned toward playing to one’s authentic strengths, reframing market criteria and rarely going after a competitor (this last point is true. For every Pepsi Challenge there are hundreds of thousands of campaigns that don’t attack or call out a competitor).
When I read about Rove’s approach it felt intuitively right to me.
Early in my career (twice actually) I worked on Reebok. Nike was the 900lbs. gorilla. The ex-athlete in me wanted to take a swing at the “big guy brand” as a kind of prison-law way to show Nike that Reebok won’t be messed with moving forward. Reebok was always marginalized by trying to be different (in ways that were less compelling in the category). I wanted to go after Nike’s hardcore competitive soul as they expanded their scope of products and customer types. I remember finding a picture of Michael Jordan — at the height of his prime — in a very retiree-looking “white-guy in Florida” golf hat. I wanted to go crazy on MJ about that. What an opportunity to weave a new story. “He (and by association Nike) is soft, retired, taking the money and is now too big and cushy.” We never propagated that story and never went after Nike.
Years later I saw Under Amour go after Nike. They never called them out openly but they positioned the brand as the hardest of the hardcore competitive athletes. They focused on football and hammered away all year. They went after Nike’s intense competitive soul. A friend who now works at Nike told me that Under Armour is under Nike’s skin in Beaverton. I may be oversimplifying but I think this decision is the foundation from which that very successful and continually growing brand and business has been built. I’m a fan. Here’s one of their spots.
I was surprised the other day when I saw this “attack their strengths” approach in the unlikely place of a recording of an Oxford-style debate on NPR. I’m a big fan of NPR’s Intelligence Squared debates. I was listening to the latest debate, “Should U.S. Stop Taking The World’s Huddled Masses?”
This debate was about immigration. The “for” side of the proposition predictably took the position that immigration is bad for the economy in general and specifically bad for a country in which a lot of Americans are out of work. This has always been the foundation of this side’s argument and in this economic context I thought it would be particularly compelling (Intelligence Squared debates are a competition in which the sides try to sway audience votes).
Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, was on the “against” side of the proposition. Her opening statement asserted that immigration overwhelmingly and undoubtedly helps the economy and adds jobs. She attacked her opponent’s core strength and it destabilized the whole debate.
As debates go it isn’t one of my favorites because there was a lot of tit for tatting around the figures and the credentials of the figures. As a debate it wasn’t that entertaining but it was a great persuasive tactic. Creating confusion and doubt is the first step to reframing what’s important in a decision. Mr. Jacoby did just that. Classic Rovian (if I may create a word) move.
Next time you are working on a brand that seems over-matched or you are working in a stable market that is difficult to reframe or destabilize, think about what Mr. Rove would do. Hit them right where they source their strength, pride and confidence. It may be the first step to changing things.