Five Lessons From Clinton/Obama Battle

Hillary Clinton ended her run at the presidency; suspending her candidacy and endorsing her rival Barack Obama. What can we learn by looking back at the battle between the Democratic candidates?

(While this post is about politics, it’s not meant to be political. But I do want to provide full disclosure: I was initially leaning towards Clinton, then became a fan of McCain when my family saw him in a small town hall meeting in New Hampshire, but ended up supporting Obama.)

As it turns out, there are several things that businesses can learn from the Obama/Clinton campaigns. Bruce Nusbaum offered an interesting post called Why Clinton Lost To Obama. Obama Designed A Better Campaign that described three areas where Obama beat out Clinton: Digital networking, voter experience, and Gen X. Looking more broadly at what it means for businesses, I came up with these five key lessons:

  1. A clear purpose drives affiliation. Abraham Lincoln said: With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Clinton lacked a clear platform for driving sentiment, while Obama’s message of hope and change cultivated a stronger emotional connection with voters. Companies need to provide a strong sense of purpose because brands need to stand for something in the eyes of customers and employees need to feel like they are a part of something that has meaning.
  2. Young consumers require special treatment. There are 100 million US consumers between the ages of 18 and 41. My research has shown that Gen Y are a different breed: they’re socially fluid and highly networked, emotionally searching for their identities, and mentally fickle and creative. In some cases, Gen X is more like Gen Y than they are like older consumers. Obama did a better of job tailoring his message, using technology, and developing field operations to reach these young consumers. Businesses also need to refine their product and marketing efforts to tap into this large segment. But that’s not all, they also need to prepare for a growing number of Gen Y employees.
  3. Social media enables powerful conversations. It used to be that politicians used mass media to blast their message out and intimate events to drive their fund-raising. If that were still the status-quo, then Clinton would probably be the Democratic nominee. The rise of Web 2.0 and social computing technologies (here’s more information about this groundswell) enabled Obama to touch a broader audience with his message and fund-raising appeal. Firms need to rethink how they communicate with customers; shifting the paradigm from mass marketing to a continuous dialogue. 
  4. Don’t underestimate a strong front-line organization. Clinton looked like the clear front-runner early in the campaign, but the battle continued on through the primaries in just about every state. While I’m not a political expert, I’ve read that Obama built a stronger field organization. This type of infrastructure is critical for long-term success. The lessons for firms is that you can’t neglect your field (front-line) operations; they’re a critical asset. You need to cultivate those employees with ongoing investments in communications, motivation, best practice sharing, celebrations, and training.
  5. Issues need to be addressed proactively. When incendiary racial sermons from Reverend Jeremiah Wright landed on television, it seemed as if Obama’s campaign was destined to fall off the tracks. But Obama took on the issue directly and responded with a powerful speech on race relations. Executives can learn from Obama’s approach of proactively tackling thorney issues and establishing a context for constituents (customers, employees, investors, etc.) to interpret the situation. Here’s an excerpt from Obama’s speech…

“…That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems…  But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races… The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country… is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past…”

The bottom lines: I was torn between two quotes for ending this post, so I decided to go with both of them…

Groucho Marx: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

Mahatma Gandhi: “The Roots of Violence: Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principles.”

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

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