3 December 2009

Chiseling: The Dark Art of Repositioning Your Competition

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Occasional Chiseler

Warning: The following blog post contains full frontal liberal snarking and might not be appropriate for all audiences. If you’re a Republican with a thin skin, please escape now to somewhere you might feel more at home.

The way I see it, ridiculing Sarah Palin is not only fun, it’s our patriotic duty.

Not a laughing matter... (source: WikiMedia Commons)

Not a laughing matter… (source: WikiMedia Commons)

Many of us laugh at her now, viewing Palin as a living Saturday Night Live sketch. But the scary part is that many others take her seriously and want her to be — gasp — President. Our mission: to convince enough sane people that the Wacko from Wasilla is far too ridiculous to allow in the White House for any reason.

Easy enough, right?

Flashback: Years ago I laughed when the Republicans nominated George W. Bush for President. “Who’s gonna vote for that draft-dodging idiot?” I guffawed. Of course, I wound up eating my words not once but twice. (As verbose as I am, no wonder I put on weight.)

Now, from a marketing perspective, W didn’t do anything to win — he wasn’t even a good campaigner. He floundered in debates. He dodged questions. He offered no inspiring policies.

Rather, his diabolical henchman Karl Rove (a marketer by trade) brilliantly repositioned my candidates Gore and Kerry as duplicitous and unlikable. And it worked. Not once but twice did Rove sell Americans some seriously damaged goods, and he did so by scaring undecided voters away from two intelligent, experienced and accomplished military veterans. Consequently, as much as I despise Rove’s politics, I consider him one of the most brilliant marketers alive — a true master of repositioning.

What the hell is repositioning — or positioning for that matter?

In marketing, a position is where a brand stands in relation to its competitors: for example, it’s cheaper, faster, sexier, smarter, younger, greener, hipper. It’s more luxurious, more educated, more moral, more colorful, more convenient, more conservative, etc. (Note that the brand can be a company, product or person.)

The key factoid: that position is strictly in the eyes of the consumer. A brand can claim to be anything it wants, but it’s the consumer who decides what the brand’s ultimate position is.

The classic example is Walmart, which has owned the position of low-price leader for decades. But in 2006, Walmart decided to reposition itself as low-priced AND fashionable. It spent millions of dollars on ads to claim this new fashion position, only to have consumers roll their eyes and continue to buy their tube socks at Walmart, their party clothes elsewhere. Walmart eventually deep-sixed the fashion campaign and pursued an entirely different position (more on that in a bit).

Every one of us holds a position. Whether you’re pursuing a mate or a job promotion, you should determine where you stand relative to your competition. Your hope is that the consumer — in this case, the object of your desire or your boss — finds your position ideally appealing.

To resonate with consumers, all brands must claim a position — and hold onto that position tightly — or else their savvy competitors will try to find a position for them. “Repositioning” is when someone tries to redefine where a brand stands. Coca-Cola claims to be “Classic,” so Pepsi repositions them as old-fashioned and tired. Microsoft claims to be ideal for business, so Apple repositions them as awkward and uncool.

It’s easy to identify the positions of politicians, since they publicly promote them — and because their competition is continuously striving to reposition them.

Sarahnormal Activity

Sarah Palin is positioned as a “woman of the people” and a “maverick.” (Just the mention of that M-word makes me wince and grimace, as if I were grating my front teeth down a granite wall.) Compared to all those suited-up, over-educated elitist politicians from D.C., she’s positioned as more down-home, more easygoing, more human, more normal. From Andrew Jackson to Bill Clinton, that type of populism has long resonated in America. So how does a paranoid liberal like myself undermine it?

First, by ridiculing it.

A friend recently sent me a video of Palin-philes being interviewed at one of her book signings. At first, I refused to watch — walking talking examples of America’s broken education system always depress me. But after a second and a third friend sent me the same video, I relented and saw that it contained everything I imagined it would: clueless denizens of middle America who couldn’t describe Palin’s own policies while believing the most nonsensical lies about Obama…

The video’s purpose was clear: to position Palin’s supporters as idiots, and convey the message that only idiots support Palin. Perhaps that might scare some fence sitters into thinking, “Uh, yeah, Palin doesn’t really bother me, but I don’t really want to be seen as one of, uh, them.” So, as a dutiful liberal, I too shared this video with others. Kind of like the mom in the horror movie “The Ring”: if we don’t share this video, our children will die.

How very Karl Rove-esque.

Yes, the video is scathing, funny and alarming. It’s also completely unfair.

As I watched it, I remembered that the Republicans had done the same thing during the Presidential election: they interviewed Obama supporters, depicting them as clueless idiots who couldn’t describe a single one of his policies. They didn’t bother interviewing any of Obama’s savvy, educated enthusiasts.

You could do the same thing at any political rally: act like Jay Leno and ask people on the street serious questions. Odds are, you’ll find a few who sound silly. Keep those and share them with the world. If you tape someone who’s informed and reasonable, delete them immediately and consign all trace of them to digital oblivion.

This was recently done to unsuspecting workers at the non-profit organization ACORN. This organization had positioned itself as a champion of civil rights, helping people in the inner city register to vote, build careers, and attain a greater political voice. This inspired a couple of conservative activists to dress up as a pimp and prostitute and ask ACORN to help them set up a whorehouse. The activists’ hidden camcorder then captured the ACORN employees offering helpful — and illegal — advice. When this video was posted on YouTube, ACORN immediately became the object of ridicule and scorn nationwide. The kneejerkers in Congress quickly cut off ACORN’s funding.

ACORN has protested that those clips were taken out of context. Some of their workers were just playing along, they claim, in order to get these con artists out of their building. An L.A. Times reporter decided to verify this by asking the conservative couple for the rest of their video footage — unedited — but the filmmakers refused.

The lesson here: it’s easy to get people to hang themselves. Just videotape them — and delete the stuff that goes against what you’re selling. It’s part of a broader strategy that I call “chiseling.”

The Rules of Chiseling

There are two ways to try to reposition someone:

First, you can lie about them. Lying is fast, it’s easy, it’s nothing new. But if you lie, you risk having your lie exposed, you risk losing all your credibility, and you risk being taken to court and having your pants sued off.

The second way is chiseling: just chip away at your competition’s brand bit by bit in ways that are completely legal. It takes longer and requires more effort and creativity, but it works without putting you at risk. Here’s how to do it:

1. Highlight mistakes. No one is perfect. If you wait long enough, even the most admirable person or company is going to commit an error. Recently, the seemingly unassailable brands of Toyota, Dubai, Tiger Woods and the President’s Secret Service have all taken huge hits because of massively bad mistakes. None of them set out to do anything mean or vicious — they just blundered. If you’re the competition and you see this happen, capture every juicy moment, then make sure the evidence gets into the right hands — salacious bloggers, talk radio hosts and the like, who are all too willing to spread the dirt. Because those mistakes were actually committed, no one can complain or sue.

2. Selectively edit. As noted above, after you record an entire event or review an entire career, show only the parts that support the desired new position. I call that “pulling a Fox News”: in no way do you attempt any balance. The goal is to portray your competition as completely ridiculous, completely wrong, completely out of their minds.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a medical doctor with a lifetime of accomplishments in public service, was made to look like a mad man because all that the news media would show of him — over and over — was his losing control while trying to pump up a political rally. The “Dean Scream” lasted just a couple of seconds, but that’s what people came to associate with him, not his actual decades of work. Again, because the behavior actually happened, it could not be denied.

3. Joke around. Ridiculing the competition is all in good fun, right? Hey, PC, we Mac guys are just pulling your leg! Hey, Coke, don’t you think we Pepsi ad guys are hilarious? Hey, Sarah, why don’t you guest star on SNL so we can all laugh together? We’re all Americans — we’re a humorous bunch, and we’ve been teasing our friends, colleagues, family members and lovers forever. Ha ha ha LOL (jk). Where’s the harm in that?

But over time, the continuous joking effectively shapes the perception of that brand, particularly if enough people share those jokes. Jokes can even chisel away the identity of entire peoples so that they won’t be treated respectfully. Repeated enough, racist jokes get transformed into “insights” that get worked into public policy. (Remember “welfare queens”?) If pressed, the jesters can apologize and say they were just joking, and that you’re being too sensitive and politically correct, so lighten up already, huh?

4. Mock the core. You can never change the hearts and minds of a brand’s hardcore fans. Whether they love the Red Sox, Apple computers, Star Trek, or Sarah Palin, you can’t say a thing to swing ’em. The only way they’ll ever betray their beloved brand is if their beloved brand betrays them first. (A lot of ardent supporters of W and Chevrolet and Manny Ramirez have quietly jumped off their bandwagons.) At the same time, that means there’s no risk in mocking these core fans — they would never support your side anyway, so what have you got to lose?

I noted the knock on Sarah Palin fans above. BMW drivers and Starbucks drinkers get ripped for being materialistic yuppies. Harvard grads are portrayed as stuck-up insufferable elitists. Walmart shoppers are depicted as freaks of nature. The result is that some people won’t let themselves be seen walking around with a Starbucks cup or a Walmart bag — they don’t want to be associated with that brand or its customers. The brand can’t do anything about it, since you’re not saying anything about it personally — just its supporters.

If you use one or more of these four tactics to make enough consumers see a brand the way you do, then the repositioning has succeeded.

Suddenly, everything else the brand attempts to do — stuff that you never even brought up — gets cast in the same disfiguring light. Sarah Palin has a book out? Well, we all know it’s a bunch of semi-literate claptrap without having to read a single word. Microsoft has a new operating system? Well, we all know that it’s just going to replace old problems with new ones. Chevy has a new car? Well, we all know that it’s gonna be a bucket of boats with the lifespan of a gnat. And Bob in accounting wants a promotion? Well, we all know he’ll just screw that up like he screwed up the holiday party…

Now I hear what some of you are saying: Those are all vile, unethical, reprehensible activities that should be shunned and forgotten so that they disappear forever! But these tactics are part of American tradition: our Founding Fathers did a pretty damn good job of repositioning their own king and homeland. Revolutionary, no?

Even if you refuse to perpetrate any chiseling tactics yourself, it’s critical that you know how they work so that you can recognize when they’re happening to you or to a brand you love. More importantly, you’ll know how to deal with it.

How to Respond to Chiseling

What can you do if you’re being chiseled? Your brand is ridiculed, the competition is only showing one side of you, your mistakes are highlighted, and your followers are mocked. Do you just sit there and take it?

Some do. When John Kerry came under attack from the Swift Boaters, he let it slide — until the Swift Boaters had successfully repositioned him as a liar or, at the least, someone too weak to stand up for himself. The problem was that Kerry was mentally living in the pre-Karl Rove and pre-Internet past, when the common strategy for dealing with salacious rumors and one-sided attacks was to ignore them and assume they would fade away. After all, if you draw attention to a rumor, you just give it validity and more spotlight, right?

But then came social media, and now things don’t go away anymore. Attacks live eternally on YouTube or some other readily accessible platform, and from there they get shared on Twitter and Facebook and hundreds of blogs. Furthermore, if you pretend to ignore what’s being said about you, that could look like tacit agreement or even a confession. So you can’t simply ignore the chiseling — but you can undermine it…

1. Respond with the facts. If someone distorts the truth or presents only one side of you, quickly and publicly respond with the facts and all the supporting materials you’ve got. Post them online, advertise them, and get the evidence in the right hands to help spread the word for you. A credible third party endorsement of the truth makes a big difference with people who are undecided.

2. Emphasize your position. Continuously emphasize what you stand for — long before you’re ever attacked. This strengthens your brand and makes it harder to chisel away. Don’t wait for competitors to appear before you start building your brand!

3. Discredit the discreditors. When under attack, turnabout is not only fair play, it’s survival. Reposition your critics as politically motivated, self-serving, fact-starved distorters of the truth — which they likely are if they’re chiseling. Again, have a credible third party spread your point of view to win over the undecideds.

4. Self-deprecate. If you poke fun at yourself, you steal the thunder from your opponents. Tiger Woods should have immediately made fun of his driving abilities (“I think I’ll stick to golf carts”), instead of acting like he had something to hide. Microsoft should acknowledge that they’re nerdy — and then show how nerds rule. (Hint: hire the cast of “Glee” to do a Microsoft commercial.) Sarah Palin did go onto SNL, but she waited too long — she should have joked immediately about Tina Fey’s impersonations instead of claiming that she watched them with the volume off.

5. Promote an accomplishment that’s completely unrelated. This is the most critical counter-chiseling act. If you don’t want people talking about one of your mistakes or about a rumor, then give them something bigger, better and completely different to talk about. And make sure you invest your marketing dollars into promoting that something bigger and better. You want that positive, exciting news to pop up everywhere, including when people Google you.

Walmart has long come under heavy criticism for its anti-union activities. The company could just respond that its workers are happy, well treated and anti-union themselves. But more effectively, Walmart is trumpeting something completely different: its ecological sustainability. Walmart has loudly and proudly become one of the greenest major corporations in the world. As I wrote in another post, this greening of Walmart splits the opposition, since many of them are environmentalists as well as union supporters. Even Good magazine — which covers progressive causes — had to put in a good word about Walmart. Now Walmart is positioned as both low-priced and environmentally friendly.

If I were advising Sarah Palin, I’d tell her to pick a cause that no one can criticize. That obviously would not include her pet platforms of drilling in national parks and banning abortion. Those stances and issues just appeal to her core fans and provide fuel to her critics. Rather, she should use her current fame to become the national leader of an issue that all sides can agree upon, such as special education. It’s a cause that has no enemies, and that parents on both the right and the left care about. She should also donate a significant portion of her book sales to special education charities, which would defuse some critics who say she’s only interested in fame and money. Could her critics then claim that she’s being cynical and exploiting a cause? Certainly — but they in turn run the risk of being accused as cynics who “hate” special ed students.

You can see the sweet irony of this self-preservation tactic: by countering those who are trying to reposition you, you just might find a better way to reposition yourself.

Parting Shot

Now, my fellow liberals (I assume I’ve lost all conservative readers by this point), worry not. I did provide some honest advice here for Ms. Palin, but there’s no danger that she’ll ever follow any of it. First of all, she’d have to find my tiny unknown blog and then take time out from her busy schedule to comb through this terribly long, overwritten article just to get to that advice. And, of course, that’s assuming she even knows how to read…

Oh SNAP! — chisel, chisel, chisel…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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