12 Marketing Lessons from the 2019 Senate Elections

There are lessons once again to process at the conclusion of the May 13, 2019 elections for senators and local officials. While there were interesting changes and surprises at the local level which saw the fall of some of the mightiest political dynasties, the national level was a different but maybe not so surprising story all together. None from Otso Diretso, a Liberal Party-dominated coalition, made it as senators — not even former senators Mar Roxas and Bam Aquino, both having high awareness levels of 99% and 95% respectively (source: Pulse Asia).  What might be an explanation to this? This article will be limited to the marketing aspect of the Otso Diretso campaign and will not dwell on other aspects of this elections, such as the 7-hour computer server glitch, and the “pressure” on LGUs to support the Duterte coalition, among others. Here are the 12 marketing lessons:

1.     Know your Customers – 78% of the voters belonged to the D income class, 16% in the E income class (highest proportion found in Visayas and Mindanao), with only 6% belonging to the more educated ABC upper and middle classes.  The DE class can relate with their heroes Lito Lapid who they see in the TV series ‘Ang Probinsyano’ and Ramon Revilla Jr., who won (although with a lower final ranking at no.11 instead of the expected 4th to 8th place) despite being tainted with a corruption accusation. This is the same reason rag-to-riches boxing icon Manny Pacquiao is an incumbent senator. They do not even need to engage in televised debates nor show up in a membership meeting of some upscale business associations since 94% of the DE “size of the prize” (marketing term for market potential) is over 15 times more than 6% of the ABC voters. 

2.     Know your Barriers – Formulating a marketing plan includes a process of evaluating before redirecting. Evaluating entails listening to views on what worked and what did not previously, as well as current sentiments and biases. Attitude is one of the most difficult adoption hurdles to counter. Just think about how to resurrect a Nokia phone. “Dilawan“, the description of the supporters of Liberal Party (LP) after its once famous yellow color, was a proud symbol of democracy in the 1980’s but has increasingly turned to have negative brand association three decades later. In 2016, LP’s Mar Roxas lost the presidential elections to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. His initial positioning “Daan Matuwid” (the straight path), a carry-over from President Noynoy Aquino’s fight versus former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had negative brand associations of indifference, incompetency and inaction unlike when it was first used.  It also lost relevance when vice president Jojo Binay’s corruption scandal resulted to a substantial drop in his rating, leading to the sudden rise of unorthodox candidate Rodrigo Duterte. Roxas added the term “Disenteng Pilipino” (decent or honorable Filipino) to describe his differentiation from the “foul-mouthed” Mayor Duterte who was fast gaining ground.  But the term was offensive to some and condescending to others who were undecided and not yet for Roxas. Supporters of Roxas were also calling Duterte’s supporters as “bobotante“, and these created some political odor that became personal, unmindful they became part of the problem. The Otso Diretso team should have learned from this elitist, self-righteous image problem.  In the 2019 senate elections, they claimed to be the “Politics of Principles” while repositioning their opponents as practicing “Politics of Convenience” continuing their self-righteous tone. Many of their supporters continued to call Duterte’s followers “bobotantes“, contributing to added divisiveness, refusing to really listen to constructive feedback. 

3.     Know your Offer – Value proposition is the compelling reason to “buy” what is being offered versus competition. The challenge is to present a slate that is a better option to competition in order to shift voters’ preferences. There could have been efforts to ask volunteers to help educate voters on the different roles of senators versus mayors for example, but Otso Diretso was unable to offer a better option that addressed target market’s needs for action (note: people remember they kept criticizing the government and did not address their needs).   That they were even unable to complete their slate of 12 candidates meant they were unable to attract bigger names to their coalition (compared to Duterte’s coalition), unable to raise critical resources for mass media (an indicator of a lack of compelling reason to open the wallet), unable to give social proof that they have the clout to get things done for themselves – and what more for their constituents. Instead, their supporters appealed for people to vote only their 8 candidates knowing fully well twelve candidates will be proclaimed as new senators. Advertising legend Greg Garcia observes, “hammering people to vote straight for eight (mostly) unknowns was flawed from the start”. 

4.     Know your Branding – The Otso Diretso brand means “straight 8” with no value association while the “Hugpong ng Pagbabago” (HNP) brand means change for the better. Also, the Otso Diretso branding was more popular than most of their individual coalition candidates, and some people even joked it would have been an effective campaign for a party list. It would be better for voters to remember the names of the candidates than the name of the party. What’s the personal branding strategy of each of the candidates? Even independent candidates Dr. Willie Ong (7.5 million votes), and Jiggy Manicad (6.8 million votes), individually got more votes than most of Otso Diretso’s coalition candidates, pointing to the possibility that some people who did not like Duterte would rather vote for independent rather than “Dilawan”, something that can be a research topic for further exploration.

5.     Know your Crusade – A crusade is much more than platform. Cory Aquino was the center of People Power, her single-minded crusade was about restoring democracy versus the Marcos conjugal dictatorship.  Duterte was voted president in 2016. His single-minded crusade was about fighting criminality versus the rampant drug addiction, and did not even bother to have a platform. He gained enough votes to become president despite his ways of commenting about God, Church and women. Who among the opposition now has the charisma of a Cory then? And what was the crusade of Otso Diretso that can resonate with the masses in one word?  Crusade has much higher pain points to solve than a political platform so people make tradeoff decisions and risk-taking chances. Just remember the many unknown volunteers standing in front of tanks to stop them from proceeding during the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986.  

6.     Know your Goals – Two simple goals to win an election is to increase awareness and to increase conversion rate higher than competition. While conversion is dependent on awareness, a high awareness may not always become a conversion, such as the case of Mar Roxas. Brand awareness is followed by brand association. General Bato Dela Rosa had higher awareness of 97% and is associated with the drug war initiated by Duterte, with close to 40% voting for him. Representative Gary Alejano had much lower awareness of 44% with only about 6% voting for him. The Jan. 26-31, 2019 pre election survey of Pulse Asia on awareness level showed Otso Diretso candidates Tanada, Diokno, Alejano, Makalintal, Gutoc and Hilbay having relatively low awareness levels of 33%, 23, 29, 22, 5, and 5% respectively. The Pulse Asia survey of April 10-14, 2019 showed improvement in awareness to 51%, 50, 44, 41, 37, and 31% for said candidates, but for a party that desperately needed to make a comeback by attaining the same 95-99% awareness level of HNP candidates in four months, the activities to match or go near HNP’s awareness level, together with having a much higher conversion rate, were insufficient to turn the tide. What was badly missing were viral campaigns that can be linked to the candidates’ brand using six basic human emotions that drive people to share publicly – – fear, anger, sadness, disgust, happiness and surprise.

7.     Know your Dialogue Partners – Otso Diretso promised to listen to its citizens, and their platforms and policies were based on Project Makinig (listening). But choosing dialogue partners is critical in marketing. For instance, market-driving strategy focuses on unserved and underserved markets (new voters, Duterte and non-LP supporters, etc.) while market-driven strategy focuses on served markets (LP and coalition supporters). Sentiments, images, needs and aspirations may be different for different groups, hence, communicating with them entails different messages. 

8.     Know your Endorsers – President Rodrigo Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, had an all-time high popularity of any Philippine president at 79% (SWS March 2019 survey). This means his endorsement will affect choice preference, especially at the national level (local level may have other influences). First time senator-elect Bong Go, General Bato Dela Rosa, and Francis Tolentino won in large part because of his endorsement, improving their awareness as well as conversion rate. The pre-election survey just prior to the election as of May 3-6, 2019 (source: Pulse Asia) showed incumbent senators JV Ejercito, Jingoy Estrada and Bam Aquino slugging it out with newcomer Francis Tolentino for the last senate seat, with Tolentino outranking these incumbent senators, gaining more conversion (11.4% in Sept 1-7, 2-18 to 29% in May 3-6, 2019 pre-election survey of Pulse Asia) and becoming number 9 on voting day. Influential religious groups Iglesia Ni Kristo and El Shaddai also endorsed most of the candidates affiliated with Duterte. Who were the endorsers of Otso Diretso that can make a positive difference for them?

9.     Know your Insights – Phenomenology is turning experiences into meanings. Many Otso Diretso candidates are said to be far more brilliant than some of the elected senators from Duterte’s coalition but while brilliance and qualification are one thing, winnability is another. Marketing entails converting a product advantage into a market advantage. Otso Diretso is based on their Project Makinig, listening to thousands of people.  What real insights did they get from there? What is their one big idea that can inspire change? Appealing for their eight candidates to be voted to provide genuine opposition and avoid having a senate as the president’s rubber stamp did not resonate with the needs of the DE class, and is an insult to the incumbent as well as the new senators. The win of Duterte over Roxas in 2016 showed voters wanted change. The overwhelming win of Duterte’s senate coalition in 2019 pointed to a desire for continuity and not disruption, especially without an alternative narrative to return power back to the “Dilawan” past. 

10.  Know your AIDA – The winning coalition knew how to attract the attention of the audience, this they did with entertainment especially in provincial sorties and not with boring speeches about platforms immediately. In 2016, then Mayor Duterte unprecedentedly admitted he will just copy the good platform of all presidentiables but promised to execute and take actions unlike other candidates’ “all talk-no action”.  Duterte won by showing his authenticity. He knew how to attract Attention, create Interest, inspire Desire, and ensure Action so people will vote for him. What’s the AIDA strategy of Otso Diretso?

11.  Know your Persuasion – The Otso Diretso team could have learned from behavioral marketing. They used parent-to-child communication by criticizing Duterte, belittling his achievement. They could have used adult-to-adult communication by applying “Convert Communication” instead of outright criticism. They can do this by saying “I have similar goals of fighting criminality but this is what I have discovered … ” lessening resistance of those still considering the senatorial candidates of the president, and making them more open to reconsideration instead of making them defensive. Senator Grace Poe is not pro Duterte but wisely chose a more positive tone. What exactly did the Otso Diretso candidates do to be more likable to the undecided voters? Humans are emotional beings with a rational side, meaning, there is logic in emotion and emotion in logic.  This helps humans to be more efficient in their decision making. It is important to win the hearts of the voters first before winning their heads. Likability of the candidate is a prerequisite. Irish playright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

12.  Know your Metrics – Otso Diretso campaigns kept showing their candidates winning in mock elections in different universities, but none from farmers, fishermen, vendors, and the D income class — the critical voting segment of Philippine elections. Their distribution channel could have been more effective. In fact, they had very few local candidates to help reinforce their campaign, something that is critically needed in areas where there is no internet and social media access. Earlier surveys showed senators Bam Aquino and Mar Roxas within winning distance. However, Mar Roxas left for US in the middle of the campaign for 20 days to fetch his newborn twins, cutting his voting preference from as high as 42% voting (January 28-31, 2019 Pulse Asia survey) to only 21% (May 3-6, 2019 Pulse Asia survey) earning him a final 9.8 million votes, statistically the same level as his 2016 presidential run but much lower than the 19.37 million votes he got as senator in 2004. Showing up in campaign sorties where a candidate is expected means giving importance and paying attention to the constituents, shifting preferences, correcting bad image and wrong impressions, as well as improving awareness positively. 

There appears to have been many “self-inflicted injuries” in the Otso Diretso camp. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”. They kept criticizing the shortcomings of the Duterte government without being mindful that voters make tradeoff decisions knowing no government is perfect. “They were in 2016 mode representing the old establishments that people rejected”, added Greg Garcia. Perhaps, the Liberal Party needs to be reminded of a popular saying, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Without reflecting and acting on these marketing lessons, the Liberal Party’s declining appeal may lead to losing their relevance in the political marketplace sooner than later.

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