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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Lessons in marketing yourself: "Making lemonade" from the Presidential campaigns

Uploaded: Oct 2, 2015
Continuing a temporary sojourn from local political issues.

In learning to write effective resumes and similar sections on college applications, one of the problems that students and young adults have is a shortage of instructive examples. Since the Presidential campaign is hard to tune out, go with "When life gives you lemon, make lemonade." One way to look at candidates is that they are applicants for a job (elective office). With so many candidates, compare-and-contrast examples are plentiful. And since the media and most comedians (and the candidates themselves) are likely to continue to ignore the substance of their policy positions, look to leverage off what is being covered: the positioning (marketing) and how effective it is, both in gaining traction and standing up to scrutiny and the opposition.

Many parents and mentors can't use real-life examples from their work because it is confidential, both privacy-rights and employer-confidentiality. So open source examples are valuable. Since examples from current politics are likely to be too controversial for the classroom, they are a good alternatives for other groups.

Background: Over the years, I have helped many people with their resumes, often with them coming to me when they think they have a near-final draft. Based on my experience in making hiring decisions, many of those drafts weren't yet good enough to cross the threshold into "We should have a screening interview with this person." The problem wasn't the person, but the advice that they were working from, and much of that was that they didn't have compelling examples of what were good and bad resumes. Some examples were too artificial. Others too far removed from the circumstances of the applicant, for example, someone applying for an entry-level engineering job is unlikely to find much useful in an example resume for a senior project leader. I learned the most about resume writing the first time I had to handle hiring for a widely advertised position that had received 200 resumes.

My experience has been that it is ineffective to have a group of applicants critique each other's drafts. First, they are (understandably) unwilling to be harsh enough in pointing out problems, as evidenced by the number of repetitions and iterations that it takes before the authors understand how serious the problems are. Second, identification of good sections tends not to register, because it is dismissed as insincere attempts to balance off the criticism.

What you are looking for is a set of closely related examples that facilitate compare-and-contrast, that tend to be "professional-grade" and that inspire the critics to be snarky--people learn better when they are having fun. What better choice that those of high-profile politicians?

Letters of Recommendation for a job applicant have multiple roles. Non-trivial ones often provide alternative, partial resumes from different perspectives, perspectives both of the applicant and of what is relevant for the job. In presenting her qualifications, Hillary Clinton has used a variety of bad metrics, with the most prominent being that as Secretary of State she had flown hundreds of thousands of miles. The very predictable retort has been "Flying is an activity, not an accomplishment" (notably from Carly Fiorina). In response a range of Clinton's supporters have published what are essentially letters of recommendation, enabling interesting compare-and-contrast. To structure your critique, you may want to refresh yourself about the basic advice on writing resumes (being dispensed by numerous websites). Remember the point of this exercise is the effectiveness of the statements, not whether you agree with the positions, or even if you think the statements are true. This ability to separate these aspects is an important discipline to learn (either for yourself or as a parent/mentor doing the teaching).
Best collection encountered: "What Is Hillary's Greatest Accomplishment? Carly Fiorina dared Democrats to name it. 20 top Dems accepted the challenge" in Politico Magazine (2015-09-17).
To which I would add: "Why I'm supporting Hillary Clinton" by Thomas J. Vilsack (former Governor of Iowa) in The Gazette of Cedar Rapids Iowa (2015-08-25).

Message discipline: I expect that a number of readers are in positions where they may called upon to be spokespersons for their companies, and thus have been through training courses on how to deal with the media, especially when the news is negative. There is similar training for political campaigns. One of the basic lessons is the importance of "message discipline", and of how hard it is to achieve. Many managers believe that they can simply decree it, rather than it needing considerable ongoing effort, for example, by anticipating and preempting likely retorts and other negative responses--it is far easier to stay on-message if there aren't strong forces pulling you off-message.

Students applying for college or their first job often have lousy message discipline in their letters of recommendation. Part of it is that they hadn't been taught how to prepare and convey talking points to the people writing the letters, a process that often starts when you are asking the person if they would be willing to recommend you. Although this may well have been mentioned to them, it was not presented in a way that gave them an appreciation of its importance, nor the tools to be effective.

The Marco Rubio campaign provides interesting examples in both directions. Its proxies are very disciplined in staying "on message", and it is a tight message composed of three points, but each of those points has serious problems. Point 1 emphasizes "his communication skills", but this is one of those skills where telling people you have it implies that you don't. Point 2&3 are "his youth" and "his biography as the son of Cuban immigrants". As with Clinton, these are bad metrics: Being young is not an accomplishment, neither is who you were born to (although "trust fund babies" may disagree). Snarky illustration: A similar description applied to Michael Corleone when he became a mob boss (in The Godfather).

Credibility/Reputation: Because of the adversarial nature of campaigns, students get to see plenty of examples of the handling of boundaries (gray areas?) between highlighting and embellishment and worse. For example, ask about Carly Fiorina's claim of having doubled revenues at HP, which is true only if you count the revenues from Compaq post-merger, but not before. Push the student to consider how a potential employer would react to discovering such a misrepresentation. Some would immediately reject the applicant as "Someone I could never trust", regardless of whether that particular instance was the result of incompetence, sloppiness, or deliberate deception. Alternatively, if the company is willing to tolerate such behavior, do you really want to be working for them?

Logos: The first interesting set of examples I encountered (in July) were not resumes, but logos/banners: ==I "The Best and Worst Campaign Logos of 2016"== (Politico, 2015-07-21) (Updated to link to archive page). A lot of them seem to be aspiring to nothing more than increasing name recognition. If the issue of an effective logo interests you, I suggest that you quickly step through them and then do some quick (web?) research on logos and then make a second pass. For example, serif fonts are generally regarded as being more traditional and conservative (than san serif), but do you see any such pattern in these logos? Or draw any inferences from the departures from this tendency? If you have a link for a good collection of rules for this category of graphic, please add it as a comment.

I circulated this to a variety of friends and colleagues, some who were primarily graphic artists and some who had worked multiple campaigns. There is only one graphic that was consistently rated as very good. A summary of their responses are at the end--labeled "spoilers"--because you probably should form your own impressions before reading.

Your suggestions: Parents and similar mentors: Have you discovered similar sources of examples, or have suggestions on how to make them interesting to students. All of my recent experience with mentoring in this area is with those in their early 20s, so advice for readers relevant to high school students would be particularly appreciated.


----Spoilers: impressions on logos----
Some of the more prominent impressions (mine and other) on the candidate logos (Link to open in a separate window for side-by side comparison). Remember to try to keep this separate from the politics of the candidate, this is about messaging / positioning / marketing. Also remember that this is only to help jumpstart discussion outside this blog, including disagreement and elaboration.

1. Bush: Exclamation point a no-no. Several people made the jokes subsequently popularized by comedians such as Stephen Colbert (CBS' The Late Show).

2. Carson: Predominant opinion is: too busy, no coherence, no discipline. The color scheme was inexplicable, but some commented the underlying structure was good.

3. Chafee: The pastel colors indicate that he isn't a serious candidate, which he acknowledges he isn't (he has said he only wants to use the forum provided by the primary to raise a few issues). In that way, this is the most honest, effective logo here.

4. Christie: Competent. Overly safe, even for a conservative. A logo designed for supporters to display. Good if you are going simply for repetition/count (bandwagon).

5. Clinton: long lowercase web address is too much cognitive/visual load to make a lasting impression. The arrow overwhelms the "H" behind it. Arrow out of proportion. Although the designers probably intended the arrow to suggest "progress" or "forward", for a campaign that should be expecting attacks, having an arrow inbound on your logo was seen as wrong, but no one could articulate their disquiet.

6. Cruz: competent cut-and-paste from standard Republican logos.

7. Fiorina: As if she sent an intern to a print shop, and after a few minutes of flipping through their sample book, this is what the intern chose.

8. Graham: another competent cut-and-paste job. Most thought the font to be too light-weight, with some wondering whether that was self-deprecating humor by the campaign. Everyone thought the slide's caption -- "Whispering..." -- was both funny and dead-on.

9. Huckabee: Snarky comment: Was he inspired by the logo of the NFL's New England Patriots? The star pattern is potentially problematic: One person thought it was too similar to that on flag of the Peoples Republic of China, even after seeing the two side-by-side (a lesson about the problem of how the human mind forces things into patterns that it has seen before).

10. Jindal: Needs much more than a web address. And why is the candy cane upside-down?

11. Kasich: Does he have enough name recognition to not give a strong indication of what office he is seeking? Although the red symbol was presumably intended to evoke a flag, for multiple people it registered as three strips of bacon ("mmm, bacon").

12. O'Malley: The blue is too muted - indicating weakness. The memorable part of the logo is "For President 2016", not the candidate's name or the slogan. Bad, very bad.

13. Pataki: Font was strongly disliked. The excessive amount of white background--vacant space--suggested an absence of content. Someone with little name recognition--he been of of office for years--needs more.

14. Paul: This says he is interested only in those that are already inclined to vote for him. Although the flame was intended to evoke the Statue of Liberty, the immediate reaction--which is the most important one--was that of a natural gas company.

15. Perry (has dropped out): This seems like a corporate logo. Starbucks? No, not quite. A restaurant chain? Click when you want to see the closest we could come.

16. Rubio: Good/VG, clean design. People liked the different colors for the first and last names (and the colors used). While the rendering of the slogan was regarded as very good, some couldn't resist commenting on the content: "15 years into the century and he thinks it is still 'new'?"
Note: The historical term "The American Century" is commonly regarded as the period beginning at the end of World War 2, or during it. So those who know the term, and for which it is evocative, will likely recognize that it hasn't expired yet and wonder why we need a new one. A good slogan doesn't clash with itself.

17. Sanders: Virtually everyone's favorite. Lose the top swish. Good use of color. Conveys energy and approachability. The relative sizes of the components reflected their relative importance, and implied similar for the campaign/candidate.

18. Santorum: The large eagle triggered very negative reactions--overbearing or insecure? Trying to overdo the symbolism.

19. Trump: lots of blank/unused space. Boring. One suggested that the logo include his comb-over as an instantly recognizable feature.

20. Walker (has dropped out): Blue-gray background is bad. Unimaginative. Some thought the "E" as a flag was good incorporation of an icon; others thought it was to pushy.

21. Webb: The fonts and the structure are competent, but not the colors. A black background? And are we really expected to believe a slogan rendered in gray?

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
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