Marketing Lessons For Presidential Candidates

Historically, winning a presidential election, like winning market leadership in the marketplace, entails a lot of mass media advertising to be top of mind. The basic idea is you convert positive thought leadership into market leadership.  Early presidentiable favorites in 2016, then Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senator Grace Poe landed number four and number three, respectively in the final tally, which means some of their early supporters changed their minds. While the basic marketing idea remains the same, social media started to make its mark and combined with mass media,  made the difference for the winning candidate. 

Let us review some of the highlights of the presidential elections of 2016 to extract some lessons for the forthcoming 2022 presidential elections.

Marketing Lesson 1 : Know your target market and their needs, wants and expectations well.

Who may vote for you enough to win? These are the voters who resonate with your message and track record, known as your value proposition. In the case of President Duterte, his votes in the 2016 elections came largely from millennials in urbanized locations (Mega Manila gave Duterte 5.7 million votes). The idea of having the first president from Mindanao had also attracted voters from Mindanao to favor one of their own, with Mindanao enthusiastically giving Mayor Duterte some 6.1 million votes. 

President Duterte got 39% of the total votes from a list of 5 major presidential candidates, which divided the playing field. The combined votes for number two, Secretary Mar Roxas and number three, Senator Grace Poe, was close to 45%, enough to make either one of them the president if the other gave way and their support base supported the remaining candidate.   

Target market also includes major endorsements. Mayor Duterte picked up an additional 6% votes from the 18% undecided voters, to finish at 39% after the endorsements of major non-Catholic groups such as Iglesia Ni Cristo came in. 

Earlier, in the 2010 presidential elections, President Noynoy Aquino got 42% of the votes in a field of six candidates, while number two, former president Erap Estrada, and number three, former Speaker Manny Villar, got combined votes close to 42%.

Elections Lesson 1: Early preference from the survey could just be an indicator at that point in time, as in the case VP Binay and Sen. Poe. 

Elections Lesson 2: A candidate need not please everyone, they just need to choose the target market big enough to win them a plurality vote, in the range of 4 out of 10 voters, based on the 2010 and 2016 presidential elections. Remember, the Philippines is not a two-party political system.  

Elections Lesson 3:  If two strong candidates attract the same target market of voters, one must give way in order to have a higher chance to win, otherwise, both will waste their effort and lose.

Elections Lesson 4: While consistently low ranking candidates cannot win, they can extract votes away from the stronger candidates, which could make all the difference in a close contest. 

Marketing Lesson 2: Have a clear value proposition.

What is the relevant and unique benefits the candidate offer that are believable? These means there are three parts in formulating value proposition and they must be in sequence. The first step is relevance of solving the pain points important to the voters, the second part is uniqueness compared to other candidates while the third part is whether the message and the candidate will be believable. 

Then Mayor Rody Duterte had a single-minded message of getting rid of criminality, including big time drug lords.  It was a latent need, not the top concern of most, but it was relevant to ordinary folks who have witnessed drug dealing in open daylight. He was believable since he had track record to show on the transformation of Davao City. His being an unorthodox and cursing provincial mayor somewhere from ‘far away’ Mindanao became an advantage consistent with this anti-criminality positioning. 

On the other hand, Secretary Mar Roxas’ message of “Daang Matuwid” was a continuity of President Noynoy Aquino’s campaign message.  It  was unique against then presidential frontrunner Vice President Jejomar Binay, who was facing a string of cases involving corruption and ill-gotten wealth, including negative reports on his family’s political clout and dynasty.  But the same message of “Daang Matuwid” became uniquely irrelevant when faced with Mayor Duterte.   

With Vice President Jejomar Binay losing some believability, his “Ganito kami sa Makati” message was no longer effective, a defacto “Ginawa ko na ito sa Davao” emerged, with Davao Mayor Rody Duterte taking over the message vacated by Vice President Binay. Mayor Duterte also promised to do things fast, the only candidate who gave a timetable to his platform. Remember “I will end drugs and criminality in 3 to 6 months”?

Elections Lesson 5: Messages must emotionally connect with the voters. Human beings are emotional people, willing to bet on a dark horse, even an underdog candidate, who may help them feel better about themselves at a single point in time – like election day.  For many voters, long term issues such as addressing poverty are impossible to solve and anything that can provide relief at the moment may get their attention (and votes).

Elections Lesson 6: Voters can change their mind when believability does not exist anymore – not necessarily referring to lack of integrity, but to broken promises to their most pressing needs.

Marketing Lesson 3: Exploit communication channels.

Instead of relying on mass media advertising, digital keyboard warriors claiming to be volunteers for Mayor Duterte dominated the share of voice in social media, an unprecedented move in Philippine elections. The social media communication of Duterte’s camp was not just organized, effective, and focused, they were data-driven and dominant. 

A second important communication channel would be the debates among the candidates carried by mass media. It can be recalled that then Congresswoman Leni Robredo, the most junior among all vice presidential candidates, scored well in each debate, showing her calmness amidst pressure, her mastery of various subjects, and her being able to stand on her own against more experienced politicians. 

From a mere 1% preference rating in June 2015 before filing of her candidacy, Congresswoman Leni Robredo surged to 14% by December 2015, then to 24% at the start of the campaign period, up again to 28% a few days before the elections and finally 35% on election day.  This score was the highest increase ever, grabbing the top spot from Senator Bongbong Marcos by a thin margin, which increased to 278,566 votes after the latter’s electoral protest, and also from early favorite, fellow Bicolano, Senator Francis Escudero. Congresswoman Leni Robredo got a total of 14.4 million come-from-behind votes, winning in 41 out of 81 provinces, compared to Duterte’s 16.6 million votes, winning in 36 out of 81 provinces. 

Elections Lesson 7: The image of a candidate can be packaged, but debates will reveal the candidate’s mind and demeanor to help voters make informed decision. Voters have made a virtual unknown candidate the vice president of the Philippines in the 2016 elections helped by the televised debates. 

Marketing Lesson 4: Build consistent brand awareness. 

A lot of psychological warfare was initiated by Mayor Rody Duterte’s camp, such as highlighting his hesitancy to run for the Presidency, his love for Mindanaons, and his no nonsense tough man persona, all designed to keep him in the news. Think of the equivalent of former President Joseph Estrada riding and capitalizing on jokes about his intelligence, even coming up with a book entitled ERAPTIONS, a self-deprecating way to make him even more endearing or charming to his already loyal fandom.

In the Duterte online campaign, groups were organized geographically — Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao plus a fourth one for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). There were weekly campaign materials planned and localized to be relevant to each local group.

Elections Lesson 8: Share of mind, as measured by first mention unaided awareness score, is the hypothetical market shares that can be expected. A 30% first mention score means a chance to attain 30% market shares. Thought leadership is imperative. Campaign for presidential candidates must be organized with their social media offense and defense team. 

Marketing Lesson 5: Establish powerful brand association.

Mayor Rody Duterte’s camp not only offered value proposition, they also defended their candidate, and demonized competitors, winning more of the undecided voters.

While Mayor Rody Duterte was associated with his toughness, and even his alleged link to the Davao Death Squad, these were consistent with his single-minded anti-crime brand positioning.  On the other hand, Secretary Mar Roxas had many high level government positions, but many didn’t know his specific achievements and they only started looking for the answers when confronted with a question, an accusation or a fake meme. Many also did not know where to find the answers so they kept quiet and failed to rebut in social media. His website was a “nosebleed” as the masa will either unlikely understand the heavy contents or be discouraged to continue reading. The few pieces of information which did make the first rounds of workplace talks were too few to be effective. When Sec. Mar’s achievements were surfaced, half of the minds of the people were already made up, the other half being engaged by followers of other presidentiables as a credit grabber.  On the other hand, the Duterte campaign managers were successful in redirecting the conversations to the “failures” of the previous administration with regards to the Yolanda funds, SAF 44, LRT breakdowns, and the lack of inclusivity for the poor in the economic gains among others.

Being single-minded is important for the message to be memorable when repeated. Communicating choice is needed. Presidential candidates in the 2022 presidential elections would need to make the hard choice what is the more appropriate pain points to emphasize – – 

1. Unemployment as of July 2021 at 6.9%, while underemployment at 20.9%,

2. Hunger at 13.6%,

3. Gross domestic product (GDP) that shrank 9.5% in 2020, the worst since 1947 and the worst performer among Southeast Asian countries,

4. Second to the last place in Bloomberg Global Resilience to Covid19, 

5. Second to the last place (120th) in Nikkei Asia’s Recovery Index, 

6. Highest strong disapproval rate on government’s Covid-19 pandemic response out of ASEAN 10 in a survey done by the ASEAN Studies Centre, 

7. The least safe country behind Nigeria, Yemen and El Salvador, as rated by Global Finance, 

8. One of the top ten worst countries to work in, alongside Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe by the International Trade Union Confederation, 

9. Lowest in reading comprehension, second lowest in mathematics, highest percentage of students being bullied at least a few times a month among 134 countries studied by Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 

10. Lowest competitive ranking, declining from number 45 to 52 in four years, ranked by the World Competitive Ranking, 

11. Largest working-hour losses in ASEAN region according to International Labor Organization (ILO) 2020 study, 

12. 11.55 trillion pesos in debts by end 2021, number 77 in the list of debt-to-GDP and number 70 in debt per capita, and 

13. 115th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) behind Mongolia and Panama, from the 85th at the end of President NoyNoy Aquino’s term. 

The Philippines is back as the sick man of Asia, much like the description given internationally during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos. 

The high economic growth registered during the time of President Noynoy Aquino not trickling down to the poor, or not being inclusive was used as a weapon of the opposition.  Clearly, for the Filipinos, high economic growth does not guarantee the administration candidate from winning.  It would be interesting to see how the candidate from this current administration will handle the issue of Mayor Duterte’s battle cry “Change is coming” with its track record of change coming from the opposite direction (or opposite the economic gains), not all because of Covid-19.

Elections Lesson 9: Toughness was the preferred brand association in 2016, economic recovery with pandemic control will likely be the new battle ground in the 2022 presidential elections. There is a need for effective voters education on the qualification needed from presidential applicants at the moment, rather than be carried away with popularity. Too bad, San Miguel’s Ramon Ang is not a candidate, it would have been ideal for a visionary who successfully reinvented strategy in a conglomerate and who responded quickly, effectively and selflessly to help the public during the pandemic to run the country. So we have to choose a competent leader who can direct us in solving the pandemic, turning around the economy, unite the country, offer hope to an ailing nation, and restore our pride as a nation. 

Marketing Lesson 6: Ensure message memorability.

Propaganda was used effectively by the Duterte camp. Visuals, such as the MRT not working, were abundant to help make the message memorable. It became too late to change perception since reaction came too late. Aside from the long lines in the MRT, the mystery of ‘laglag/tanim bala’ in the airport became tainted with corruption accusations, and even the simple unavailability of car plates and driver’s license plastic cards were some of the high profile cases used against the administration of President Noynoy Aquino, who was unable to terminate the services of people perceived as close to him. The high profile cases in the 2022 elections will be the alleged PhilHeath payment schemes and DOH overpricing issue, referred to by Senator Panfilo Lacson as “Plundemic” — similar issues of corruption happening in different administrations.

Elections Lesson 10: Gaining votes come from three major sources – – loyal followers, making people shift their preference, as well as convincing the undecided voters, each may entail different messaging. 

Marketing Lesson 7: Test message persuasiveness.

Mayor Duterte not only gave many quotable quotes, one of them claiming he did not mind going to hell if his constituents will live a heavenly life — reinforcing his track record of being iron-willed against criminals, with a promise to run after drug lords.  But he also communicated visually. He folded his barong sleeves during televised presidential debates, wore checkered shirts and did not button the top of his shirt that resonated with the man on the street. He used rituals like kissing the Philippine flag each time he goes up the stage during his campaign rallies and even flashed his middle finger, reinforcing his image as an action man ready to change the status quo.

Elections Lesson 11: During the Great Depression in the United States, the public was suffering for a long time, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in 1933) responded with clarity when he launched “A New Deal” of 3R’s (Relief, Recovery, and Reform).  This created not just high impact improvements in  the lives of the people but provided inspiration to a demoralized nation. History will tell us that only a totally new administration can give hope to a suffering people. 

There is also an element of destiny in all this, and the future is in our hands – a collective energy that a united people can generate –  that can be gained by voting wisely, and by prayers.


Josiah Go is the bestselling author of 18 books in marketing and entrepreneurship. 

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