Barack Obama did not go to business school, but he will win the U.S. presidency because he understands the core principle of developing a market strategy - the positioning statement. Similar to how L'Oreal became an industry leader by telling a consistent story to its customers ("Because You're Worth It"), Barack Obama has offered voters a consistent message: "The Change We Need." It's everywhere: in his speeches, in the advertising, and in the placards held his by supporters at campaign events. By contrast, John McCain's message has been inconsistent and confused.
As any marketing student knows, the positioning statement has four elements: customer target, competitor target, value proposition, and reason to believe. Obama's customer targets are the specific voters he is trying to attract: young and first-time voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents. Obama is not concerned with mainstream Republicans or the religious right, reflected in his decision to make little effort in heavily red states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. His competitor target is also pretty clear - it's not McCain, but rather George W. Bush. How many times has Obama reminded us that "John McCain voted with President Bush over 90% of the time"? Obama's advertisements even depict McCain confirming that assertion (video).
Obama's value proposition, "The Change We Need," is clear and resolute, but from the start his main problem has been establishing the reason to believe. Why should anyone think that a first-term senator from Illinois with minimal executive experience can handle the most powerful office in the world? Sure, he's an excellent speaker and has a credible record in Illinois, but president of the United States?
The answer is threefold: first, he has run a highly disciplined campaign that has been consistently on message; to put it another way, he has stuck to his value proposition. Second, his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate has shored up his foreign policy credentials. Third, in all three presidential debates, Obama showed himself to be intelligent, capable, and thoughtful about just exactly what needs change, and how he would go about implementing it.
John McCain, on the other hand, has got his marketing all wrong. Independents hold the key to the election, but McCain chose the right wing of the Republican Party as his customer target, evidenced by the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain's competitor target is clearly Senator Obama, but he might have done better running against Congressional Democrats, thinking, "Things don't look good for Republicans in the House and Senate, but a McCain presidency will keep a lid on the Democrats' excesses."
McCain's real problem, though, has been his value proposition. What is it, you ask? Well, there are a few to choose from: war hero, bipartisan, courageous patriot, conservative, straight-talker, and experienced leader. While each of these is credible on its own, there is no cohesive narrative or consistent value proposition. One moment, McCain's a war hero, the next he's an experienced political leader, and then later he's a bipartisan trying to build consensus on immigration. The shoot-from-the-hip, overnight decision to select Sarah Palin, the suspension of his campaign and his personal attacks on Obama have destroyed whatever coherence a voter might try to construct. Just compare all of this to the resolute consistency of "The Change We Need."
So what should we take away from this presidential race? First, I would like to award Barack Obama an Honorary Honors grade for the marketing core course at Columbia Business School. John McCain is receiving an Honorary Fail, but he can turn this into a Low Pass by submitting an analytic paper on the role of positioning in the market strategy. Second, and more generally, the market strategy is at the core of any successful business strategy. Check with your own marketing department. If they cannot articulate a coherent positioning statement, then you have a problem!
Noel Capon is the R.C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing at Columbia Business School. He is author of The Marketing Mavens; his marketing textbook, Managing Marketing in the 21st Century, is available FREE online at www.axcesscapon.com.