Arun Chaudhary: Lessons Flow Both Ways Between Marketing and Politics

The second part of this story is right here.

When you first start chatting with Arun Chaudhary, creative director and partner at Revolution Messaging, it’s hard to stop thinking about his resumé.

After working on President Obama’s 2008 campaign, he became official videographer to the Obama White House, helping frame our perceptions of the 44th President. In 2016, he took up the very different challenge of helping shape Bernie Sanders’ run at the nomination.

But once he’s in full flow, all you can react to are his insights: always unabashedly progressive, but also surprising, thought-provoking and refreshing. What does it have to do with marketing? At a marketing conference last year, he told the audience that although some of them doubtless supported ideas which would undermine the nation he loved, they could all learn from him. How right he was.

We caught up with him recently to pick his brains on 2020 politics, and the lessons marketers can learn (he was not, when we spoke, working on any of the current campaigns for the Democratic nomination). Hold tight, this is quite a ride.

What politicians can learn from marketers

We thought about asking Arun what lessons marketers can learn from politicians, but decided to flip the question. Do you think political campaigns have anything to learn for marketers? Are there brands out there doing really revolutionary, innovative work — especially in video — which the political class could learn from?

“I absolutely think that’s the case,” he said. “I mean, I’m having trouble off the top of my head thinking of thing I’ve seen online, marketing wise. But no, all of the time. And let’s be absolutely crystal clear, despite the things that you read, in 2018, Democrats have been [present] a lower percentage than they had been previously on digital, and a higher percentage on TV. It’s the kind of revenge of the big consultants who all now say they do digital too, so that then they’re doing both. But it flies in the face of what every company’s doing, especially the big ones.”

But there are differences between activism and brand marketing, of course.

“Look, I work in politics, because I find that more rewarding than I would working for the Coca-Cola brand. That’s something that’s very important to me, and it’s very important to a lot of us are working in politics. But I think we can sort of fetishize the experience. I think that it’s different than marketing, while knowing that the techniques flow back and forth.” The first mass marketing event, said Arun, was the political work done by the government to firm up support for World War One. “The army got smart guys together in a room and they figured out the principles of marketing, and we still use them.”




On the other hand: “I’ll say something nasty like, well, if canvassing worked, then Coca-Cola would sell soda that way.” The response will be that politics is different. “People love their political leaders, they support them, they want to wear their shirts, because they believe in something. It’s not just an advertisement. But then you think back to your walk to where you had the conversation. And half the people you walked by were wearing a shirt advertising a soft drink, or even funnier the college they went to, as if somehow that’s the community that they’re in and not a thing that they’re the customer of. Campaigns have to be a little more clear headed about when they’re doing raw marketing. That’s what they’re doing. They’re doing raw marketing.”

Arun has to be right about that. The idea of community is prominent in the marketing strategy of many big brands, like Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and Apple. “They’re fighting for your imagination. They’re fighting for your loyalty.”

How the Democrats are approaching 2020

Arun had harsh words for most of the current campaigns for the Democratic nomination. “What we’re seeing in terms of 2020 is an absolute marketing disaster. The bankruptcy of conventional wisdom. Increasingly I see candidates using the exact same strategy and the exact same people [as in the past]. They’re literally hitting the same people with the same emails with the same subject line.”

Not only does he see that as fatiguing for committed Democratic voters. It also overlooks the pressing need to attract new voters. In marketing terms, the campaigns are putting strain on their loyal fans while failing at acquiring new ones. “There’s a huge population which doesn’t vote, and everybody is just trying to bash the door down on their own special subset [of potential voters] rather than evangelizing.”

Surely the 2018 mid-terms saw new voters, especially young first-time voters motivated by gun control and climate change? “Yes, and it was exciting to win big. But there’s also too much danger in trying to replicate victories, or taking them out of context. You can’t leverage the same campaign twice.”

When we asked if he could pick anyone in the Democratic pool displaying new thinking, his answers were surprising. “Marianne Williamson and Mike Gravel. You probably haven’t even heard of him.” He singled out Williamson because she has dared to introduce a spiritual element to her political campaigning: Americans, he said, love spirituality.

Gravel, an 89 year-old former Senator for Alaska, had handed the running of his campaign over to three social media savvy teenagers. Certainly an innovation, but Gravel withdrew from the race on August 6, endorsing Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.

Not that Arun’s prescribing exactly that approach. “What’s disruptive about it is the idea of giving power to that kind of spokesman, a couple of rings down, but still also having sustained persuasion and communication efforts. You can’t do everything in an online marketing campaign in politics. You never have enough money to do everything you want to do — even things that seem like a good idea. Just doing that kind of thing, and not doing other more traditional organizing activities is dangerous. So yes, disruptive and dangerous.”

In part two on Thursday, more on the primaries, and we finally mention President Donald J. Trump.




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