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  • Writer's pictureLesley Gold

Puppies, Prejudice, and Positioning

Warnock for Georgia

The two U.S. Senate races in Georgia were the most expensive in U.S. history. They resulted in a deluge of political advertising, unlike anything the people of the Peach state have ever seen. But when the dust settled, the message that had the most powerful impact was delivered by a Beagle named Alvin.

The story of Alvin the dog has three things I love: a fine four-legged protagonist, great positioning, and great strategy. If you’re a political candidate running in the South, you realize quickly that the race is all about race. Candidates must reassure voters that they can represent them, even when they don’t look like them.

In Georgia’s recent and hotly contested U.S. Senate race, Raphael Warnock’s challenge revolved around winning the support of Black voters while simultaneously finding a way to woo White Georgians as well. Apparently, nothing reassures Southern White voters quite like a Beagle.

The lesson in positioning is if you don’t define yourself, someone else will. As we’ve seen often in our recent past, there is a not-so-fine line between shaping perception and relying on prejudice. Now, I realize for some this is a discussion that borders on uncomfortable. But the reality is that American politics still often wear an ugly face. And there’s a lesson in accepting uncomfortable truths when it comes to messaging that is instructive for every company and any brand.

The Strategy

Warnock knew his opponent would use his greatest strength with his base — Warnock’s history as a civil rights activist — to sow suspicion with some White voters. The narrative told by Warnock’s opponent was that “he is for them” — not for you. The Warnock campaign needed to counter the hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads his opponent ran to paint him as the Black radical communist nightmare of White Southern voters. So, the Warnock campaign enlisted a four-legged protagonist in the fight.

What are those of us who never plan on running for statewide office supposed to learn from Alvin? For starters, face hard truths. Embrace the power that comes from really knowing who your audience is and what moves them.

The Positioning

Here in Silicon Valley, I have worked with hundreds of brands building brilliant technology and category-defining products. It’s hard not to fall in love with the company or technology you’ve built. But what happens when what you want to say gets in the way of what people NEED to hear? You lose your people and never develop your tribe.

There’s a lot of talk about products in the tech world. As Steve Jobs once said “We’re a product company. We make great products.” The product often trumps the people they’re being created to serve. Products are the headliner in the tech world, where people tend to be the warm-up act.

Positioning guru Al Ries said, “Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products.” Every person, every potential customer, comes with implicit and explicit perceptions and biases. Product management is usually an organizational imperative. In contrast, perception management is frequently an afterthought, rarely sustained, lacking discipline, and rarely done well. That is why we have many companies creating great products, but relatively few people enjoy them.

Recognizing and Redirecting Existing Perceptions

The Senate race in Georgia featured two very different “products”; a conservative, White Southern woman, and a Black civil rights activist. Warnock and his team had to devise a plan to counteract the existing perception. “He knew he was going to be perceived as a highly racialized candidate,” said Andra Gillespie, Professor of Political Science at Emory University.

We may not like people’s perceptions and prejudices, but knowing what these are gives us the power to change them. To win, Warnock needed “de-racialization” to become more acceptable to White voters.

What appeals to white people in suburbia you ask? Well, if you’re positioning to “deracialize,” nothing screams white suburbia like puppies, puffer vests, white picket fences, and pumpkin spice lattes. All of these things have “racial” associations attached to them. Enter Alvin the Dog, the loveable Beagle, strolling the Suburban sidewalks making light of all that political sh*t that was sure to be thrown at Warnock.

Dr. Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford professor focusing on the study of race and politics, said Mr. Warnock’s sustained likability was all the more impressive considering that “his opponent is tossing all this vitriolic — dare I say, racist — criticism that aimed to highlight his Blackness and his otherness to Georgia voters.” Mr. Warnock countered that strategy with “this cute little dog” and scenery that evoked a “White aesthetic,” and it worked.

“The puppy ad got people talking,” said Brian C. Robinson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. “It made it harder to caricature him because they humanized him.”

People who know me at all are not surprised that I find inspiration in this tale because I have a house full of retrievers. People who know me very well will remember me saying, “Products, they’re all bottled water to me.”

Raphael Warnock’s triumphant political campaign is a tale we can all turn to when we’re telling any kind of story. It reminds us to think — really think — about our audience. Consider what moves them to effect change. And what images do they respond to? Sometimes it’s the most obvious one, like a lovable puppy.

Over the years, my appreciation for all that goes into building a great product has grown tremendously. But my forever passion and fascination lies with people and perception, what shapes decision making and choices.

And if you put a dog in your campaign ad, you’ve got my vote!


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