Thursday, July 9, 2009

Keeping Them Guessing

A Sometimes Risky Strategy
Politicians aren't products (exactly) but how would a marketing person dissect the surprise resignation of Governor Sarah Palin? Some take her at her word and others are convinced of hidden agendas. Why this sharp divide?

Some insights might be gained by examining the success factors that allow Apple to use mystery to drive interest and anticipation. Under the leadership of Steve Jobs, they have been brought back from the edge of oblivion to become the hallmark of that intersection between tech innovation and design. Feeding the cachet of the Apple brand has been their clever use of silence and, sometimes, misdirection. (Not so clever was the decision to keep Jobs' liver transplant a secret. True, they probably avoided some potential shareholder panic but disclosure would have been the appropriate path.)

How does Apple pull this off? How can they keep their plans quiet without infuriating their customers, the news media or investors? Sure, there have been glitches but mostly:

They deliver. Their products have been deemed to be worth much more than any of angst or frustration caused by the purposeful stealthiness. And, once a breakthrough device is delivered, they follow through with incremental improvements and extensions.

It's become a sport. With a successful track record and an established method of rolling out "must have" products, they've created something of a game -- a bit of cat-and-mouse. Their publics fill cyberspace with speculation and discussion in attempts to figure out the products' specifications and when they will be delivered.

Their appeal is broad. Frequently representing the leading edge, there is wide interest in Apple's exploits. Sure, there are people who don't care or refuse to get caught up in the Apple aura. But a key to the success of their strategy is that there are few who are engaged in any active dislike of the company or its products.

As for Sarah Palin, the now soon-to-be ex-Governor of Alaska did not directly address her plans during her press conference the other week. In follow up interviews, she repeated that she can be more effective as a private citizen. Also, fighting ethics complaints and the media have taken a financial toll on the state and her family and, because she already decided not to seek re-election, leaving now would be in everyone's best interest.

So, was this about spending more time with and shielding her family, digging out of a financial hole with book deals and speaking engagements, gaining a national platform by becoming a conservative TV commentator, gearing up for a Presidential run in 2012, all of the above or something completely different? While most of us were left to wonder, Republican political consultant Mary Matalin was convinced that Gov. Palin's move was "brilliant." Not so sure were other key Republican figures. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said her mid-term move "simply doesn't make sense" and Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush's counselor, said it was a "risky strategy" if she had any designs on elected office.

Michael Carey took a harder line in his commentary in the Anchorage Daily News: "We are left to guess. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is this: Palin did not tell the truth when she said she is leaving for the good of Alaskans. She is leaving for her own good."

In response to all of the criticism, Gov. Palin said, "You know why they're confused? I guess they cannot take something nowadays at face value."

So, why isn't she getting the benefit of the doubt? Why is she in a defensive posture and repeating the words "I'm not a quitter, I'm a fighter" over and over? Why is the web overflowing with references to her "epic fail"?

I submit that we can use Apple's success as a guide to help us judge if "keeping them guessing" was a wise strategy:

Has she delivered? She made a stunning entrance onto the national scene with her selection as John McCain's running mate but, it was a bit like a Super Bowl ad with no marketing campaign to follow. While she can take credit for some accomplishments as Governor, there is some consensus that perhaps the most important work in Alaska is left unfinished.

Has Palin speculation become a sport? The Governor has, indeed, generated discussion around the world. However, the substance and tone are not entirely sporting -- not with polls asking whether or not she should run for President or "disappear."

Does she have broad appeal? Most political pundits agree that her support lies only at one end of the political spectrum. This polarization may ensure that an active set of detractors will always be second-guessing her intentions. And, questions will remain about the ethics of asking Alaskans to elect her Governor and then leave in a relative rush just a year and a half later.

The bottom line is that Apple can keep us guessing. They have cultivated their publics and grew from one success to the next. For Sarah Palin, one never knows but, without the time to fully bank political capital or build her reputation and public trust, she may have made one guess too many.

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