Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Wendy Clark, Coca-Cola’s North American Marketing Chief, is likely to join Hillary Clinton’s (as yet unannounced) presidential campaign. Clark would not be the first marketing star to try her hand at politics. Dwight Jewson, a branding specialist for Doritos and Taco Bell, helped promote Clinton’s senate campaign in 2000, and Team Obama veterans such as David Plouffe—now of Uber—have proven that messaging expertise is a highly transferable skill.
All of which raises the question: How much overlap is there between commercial and political marketing? How much different is selling a diet coke from selling a Clinton?
“I actually see many synergies between the two roles,” says Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. “Success in either one requires psychological insight into people’s underlying motivations and needs. The goal is to influence key constituencies by addressing their motivations.”
For Coke, as for any candidate running in 2016, young Americans certainly represent a key constituency—and this, Labroo assumes, has not been lost on D.C. strategists. Someone like Clark, who studies young adult consumer behavior, is sure to have valuable insight into how best to engage such voters. “Marketing provides an edge in that respect,” Labroo says.
Alice Tybout, also a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, says she is not surprised that Clinton would hire someone with Clark’s experience. “Coca-Cola has long been at the forefront of marketing, so it’s an excellent training ground for those who move on to other organizations.”
This is especially true, she says, in the realm of social media—Clark’s area of expertise. The last time Clinton ran for office, her online following lagged behind; this time, she would no doubt hope for a more complete digital strategy. Tybout sees a number of skills that Clark could bring to the table: quick response time, youth appeal, and confidence using analytics. One advantage of social media—for companies as well as candidates—is the ability to conduct experiments that will test new messages, she says.
For Tybout, a social media strategy is all about getting a message out that people want to share. “It has to be relevant—and it has to be something you’d want to pass along.” Also, she says, it has to connect to a larger strategic vision—a stream of unrelated tweets will not win anyone’s loyalty. “To keep people engaged on social media, you need to have something to talk about.” That is as true for companies as it is for politicians.
Still, marketing products is not the same as marketing people. First of all, a voter only commits to a candidate once every election cycle, and people might act differently as citizens than as customers. There is also the fact of negative ads, a common feature of politics but a rarity in the business world.
“Brands don’t have the same vulnerabilities that people do,” Tybout says. “Pepsi won’t badmouth Coke in the way that one politician might badmouth another. That probably makes it more challenging from a marketing point of view.”
That is not to say, however, that brands have no emotive force. In fact, as Tybout points out, corporate marketing has now widely adopted the concept of “brand purpose,” which involves a deeper engagement with consumers and their higher ideals. “It’s no longer an outlier,” Tybout says. For the next generation of marketing leaders, “it’s less about selling products and more about addressing larger goals.”
Wendy Clark is among those who have embraced this new definition of marketing. Her link to Hillary Clinton is a former colleague, Roy Spence, a vocal spokesman for what he refers to as “purpose-based branding.” (He is also founder and chairman of The Purpose Institute). While it’s clear that marketing executives have started to take the idea more seriously, whether it translates into votes is too early to tell.