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Lessons for Business Leaders from the Massachusetts Election

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The talking heads and columnists will analyze/spin the politics behind the Massachusetts upset by Scott Brown (R) over Martha Coakley (D) for Teddy Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.

At CommCore, we think there’s a lesson or two for business leaders in all this: First, know your customer. Second, celebrity CEOs don’t necessarily win over buyers.

In the first case, Coakley and her team ran a weak campaign that never connected with voters:
- She lost the sound bite war. Her gaffe was calling Curt Schilling Red Sox star pitcher and blue collar hero a New York Yankee. In contrast, Brown had a slam dunk with the line, “It’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s the people’s seat.”
- She made tactical errors like going to Washington to meet with lobbyists and major donors a week before the election. The cumulative effect made it appear she was elitist, out-of-touch, didn’t know who the voters were, or understand their angst about so-called Big Government and Fat Cats.
- She never introduced herself with a compelling storyline to back her law enforcement credentials as a prosecutor. How many people knew her husband was a cop? How come he wasn’t out there in person and in TV spots touting her toughness and caring for everyday citizens?

Can you imagine a business successfully touting its product or service without a thorough understanding of the customer, the market, and communicating a compelling brand message that resonates? That’s what Coakley failed to do. Wealthy suburban lawyer Brown, meantime, drove around in a highly-visible old pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it, and was portrayed as a hero of the people.

The second point, about celebrity CEOs, reminds us of the old line from Tip O’Neill, a Bostonian and former Speaker of the House. O’Neill’s mantra: “All politics is local.” So while “national CEO” President Obama is personally popular in the state, he couldn’t convince Massachusetts voters to change their minds about the candidates/products in front of them despite his star quality and oratorial skill.

Lesson number two for business leaders: senior executives’ popularity and celebrity are assets to be tapped carefully and selectively. They are not substitutes for an enterprise properly framing and communicating strong brand and product messages that meet a target audience’s needs and wants.

Can you think of businesses and their leaders who have made the same mistakes as the Coakley campaign? Conversely, which business leaders have learned the communications and public relations lessons and managed best to connect with their target market?

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