11 Feb 2008  Research & Ideas

Does Democracy Need a Marketing Manager?

It's more than coincidence that we feel more association with our favorite consumer brands than with our elected politicians or government institutions. Can the power of marketing be used to promote public participation in politics? Harvard Business School professor John A. Quelch and research associate Katherine E. Jocz discuss their new book, Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy. Plus: book excerpt. Key concepts include:

  • The core benefits of marketing align closely with the requirements of democracy: exchange, consumption, choice, information, engagement, and inclusion.
  • Voter apathy in the United States could be improved by better marketing of candidates, the political process, political parties, and government institutions.
  • This year's presidential race is increasing voter interest because it offers a diversity of choices.


Very little scholarship has been done around the subject of marketing and democracy. In fact, many believe that politics needs less marketing.

Harvard Business School professor John A. Quelch and research associate Katherine E. Jocz see it differently. What the process needs is better marketing, not less. In their new book, Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy, the authors argue that the core benefits of marketing align closely with the requirements of democracy: exchange, consumption, choice, information, engagement, and inclusion.

By extension, the principles of good marketing can be used to create a political process that entices consumers (voters) rather than makes them cynical.

"We wanted to elevate understanding of the power and importance of marketing as a force for social good," the researchers wrote in an e-mail interview. "As part of this, we wanted to give consumers and citizens a deeper understanding of the marketing system, what it means for democratic society, and their power to influence it."

Sean Silverthorne: In general, how does good marketing reinforce democracies?

John Quelch and Katherine Jocz: Marketing as we know it today provides core benefits that align with the conditions necessary for democracy. A critical takeaway is that billions of marketing transactions help to develop the social glue that holds democratic societies together.

Q: How can the two major U.S. political parties market themselves more effectively to voters?

A: While around a fifth of U.S. adults are political partisans, about half don't participate. If citizens think their vote will not matter, see no important differences among the candidates, encounter barriers to voting, or are turned off by the electoral process and candidates' campaign tactics they drop out.

There are structural reasons why we have arrived at this state of affairs, including "winner-takes-all" elections, a two-party system that offers limited choice, and the system of campaign financing. The winner-takes-all system often leads candidates to desperate tactics such as negative advertising to tear down their opponents rather than promoting their own virtues. Citizens can be forgiven for being cynical.

However, what's needed in politics is not less marketing but better marketing. The two major parties should focus on learning current and emerging citizen needs, developing policy and program solutions, informing interested citizens about themselves, and making themselves easily accessible. They should embrace reforms, such as lifelong voter registration, that remove barriers to participation. Politicians need to view citizens not as occasional voters, donors, and taxpayers but as their customers.

It's important for the major parties to give voters choices. With no incumbent candidate or heir apparent running in the current presidential primaries, the diversity of choices is better than ever. Hence, interest and "consumption" of politics is higher than it has been in the last couple of decades.

Also, one way of viewing local elections and political primaries is as a product development process for the major parties. Letting voters choose among a diverse array of candidates with distinct positionings and value propositions represents a market test and signal of what consumers want.

Q: Consumer marketing appears to be drifting away from mass market advertising to more targeted approaches made possible by the digital world. Is political marketing evolving in the same way? What new technologies can candidates take advantage of to reach voters?

A: Political marketing is evolving in the same way. Grassroots political organizations and interest groups are using digital technology to communicate to targeted segments of citizens, receive input from supporters, hold interactive conversations, and process financial contributions. For example, on the liberal side of the spectrum, you have Democracy for America, founded by Howard Dean, and also Moveon.org.

However, online enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into the superior on-the-ground political organization that is still crucial in so many elections. Dean's youthful Internet backing failed to generate enough votes at the polls. In the recent New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton's surprise win is attributable in part to her superior grassroots organizing there—the political equivalent of retail and sales force coverage.

Likewise, the country is far from ready for online voting. We can't even manage to cast and count votes accurately with the new electronic technologies.

Q: In the United States it seems the public has a very low opinion of the federal government. Can government market itself more effectively to its constituents and customers?

A: The federal government and local governments can market themselves more effectively to constituents. First of all, they have to view their organization from a customer viewpoint and ask: Who are our customer groups? How are we going to add value to those customers?

Federal agencies that provide services to citizens can institute service improvements and metrics modeled after those in the private sector. They can call on social marketers to aid in communicating with customers and creating attractive exchanges that will achieve desired customer behavior. The good news is that government agencies can improve—even offices of motor vehicle registration.

The challenge is that public agencies serve two types of customers: clients and taxpayers. This is similar to media companies serving consumers and advertisers. The needs of both constituencies are linked, but they are not identical.

Q: As you note in the book, only 10 percent of the world's population live in countries considered totally democratic. Does democracy need a marketing campaign? If so, who should run it?

A: No one is marketing democracy. The Carter Center deserves credit for monitoring the fairness of elections, but what is needed is an international institute funded by multiple countries, representing different models of democracy, to create pull demand for democracy around the world. It must be multilateral, not unilateral. U.S.-directed initiatives will always be suspected as self-serving.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: We are working on a book on what CEOs need to know about marketing and how they can leverage marketing capabilities for competitive advantage. We welcome input from CEOs on whether they think marketing is delivering or is letting them down and how they think marketing can and should help them.

E-mail Katherine Jocz

Book excerpt from Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy

by John A. Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz

Why Do Negative Political Ads Work?

In the consumer marketplace, it is uncommon to directly criticize a competitor; in politics, the opposing candidate is held to be a fair target. Ads for products may cast a competitor in an unflattering light but—for fear of reinforcing awareness of the competitor's brand—rarely name the target or make a comparison based on anything other than objective data. Pepsi Challenge advertising did not say that consumers thought Coke was bad, only that a majority thought Pepsi was better. When then do negative political ads, such as the notorious "Swift Boat" ad used against Kerry in the 2004 election, work? There are at least four possible explanations.

First, Coke and Pepsi don't sling mud at each other, because if they did, consumer purchases would eventually shift away from both of them to alternative colas and beverages. Both brands want to enlarge the market, not reduce it. However, in politics, market share, and not market size, matters. Negative campaigning may turn off a sizable number of the electorate, but if George Bush succeeds in making John Kerry marginally less acceptable to the voters who show up on Election Day, Bush comes out ahead. And using surrogates to deliver the strongest attacks, as frequently happened in the 2004 campaign, minimizes the risk of the intensely negative approach backfiring on the attacking candidate.

Second, candidates are inherently fallible. It is easy for an opponent to seize on personal shortcomings or inconsistencies or to magnify one unpopular stance. Moreover, it is easier to standardize and improve the delivery of hamburgers at McDonald's than it is for staffers to perfect a candidate, who, as a perpetual work in progress, must respond to ever-changing and complex developments, including national and world events and unexpected attacks by opponents in hostile special-interest groups.

A third possible explanation is that most elections boil down to a voter's party identification and the twin issues of security and prosperity. (A question asked in the 2004 exit polls led to widespread explanations that moral values accounted for Bush's victory, but subsequent analysis concluded that this issue played only a "very minor part" in voters' choice.)18 Attack messages that suggest an opponent cannot provide security and prosperity trigger fundamental human anxieties. Collecting information to resolve these fears or doubts is beyond the capacity of most voters, so the negative message prevails.

A fourth explanation is that the press has a bias toward reporting the negative. In the 1960 presidential election, three-quarters of the media coverage of the campaign was favorable in tone; since 1980, more than half of election campaign coverage has been negative. Over these decades, reporters have given much more coverage to the candidates' negative ads and attacks on their opponents than to candidates' rebuttals or positive claims about what they hope to accomplish if elected.19 Finally, tension as the election-day deadline looms may reinforce these reasons for using mud-slinging tactics.

18. More important factors were party affiliation, liberal versus conservative ideology, and attitudes toward the economy, the Iraq war, and terrorism. Further, the moral values issue did not appear to increase turnout among religious voters over the previous election: D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields, "Moral Issues and Voter Decision Making in the 2004 Presidential Election," Political Science and Politics 38, no. 2 (April 2005): 201-209.

19. See Thomas E. Patterson, The Vanishing Voter: Civic Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

Book excerpt used with the permission of Harvard Business School Press from Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy by John A. Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz. Copyright 2007 John A. Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz. All rights reserved.

Purchase this book: http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu/

About the author

Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge.