Marketing Lessons of the 2016 Presidential Elections by Josiah Go


The May 9, 2016 presidential election was one of the most vicious and ruthless elections ever with administration candidate Mar Roxas and incoming president Rody Duterte getting most of the hostilities. Criticism on the shortcomings of the Aquino presidency came initially from vice president Jejomar Binay, who resigned from the cabinet of President Benigno Aquino III on June 22, 2015 before filing his candidacy in October 2015.  The same attacks also came from senator-turned-vice-presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, who did the rounds in universities for a few years promoting the best of his father’s Martial Law days as compared to the Aquino regime, an alleged attempt at revising the history of the Philippines.

While healthy economic gains and high growth rates have been the strongest accomplishments of the Aquino government, the lack of inclusive growth where poverty and unemployment still abound, was a persistent complaint. Since administration-backed candidate, Secretary Mar Roxas was expected to compete with VP Binay for the 2016 presidency, the positioning of ‘Daang Matuwid’ (the straight path) as a continuation of President Aquino’s achievements against corruption and gains in economic growth, was a good foil to the economic claim (“ganito kami sa Makati”) of then frontrunner VP Binay, who was already facing a string of cases involving corruption and ill gotten wealth, including negative reports on his family’s political clout and dynasty.

This obsessive focus on Daang Matuwid became a problem when a repositioning was needed to be done as it was already included in the filing of the Certificate of Candidacy (COC) of the LP tandem as the official ‘candidates’ nickname’ in the ballot.  From a pool of five candidates, Mar Roxas was initially number four, managing to improve his ranking to number two, which was not enough to win against the unorthodox Mayor Rody Duterte whose strength of character, experience and will became strengths when issues were reframed against Daang Matuwid.

Branding and Positioning:
Daang Matuwid was the campaign slogan of President Aquino against the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2010.  In 2005, 42% of Pulse Asia respondents considered Arroyo as the most corrupt president in Philippine history. Since the circumstances surrounding VP Binay’s corruption scandal had similarities with Arroyo, the Daang Matuwid brand was used a second time for this elections. But it came with two problems.

1. Despite high economic growth, Daang Matuwid had negative brand associations of indifference, incompetency and inaction unlike when it was first used. Prosperity was not inclusive and many did not feel the gain. The President was also unable to terminate the services of people perceived close to him, in high profile cases reported in media such as the mystery of ‘laglag/tanim bala’ in the airport, the long lines in MRT where even adding more trains became tainted with corruption accusations, and even the simple unavailability of car plates and driver’s license plastic cards — all added to the brand’s negative association.

2.  When ratings for VP Binay started to deteriorate and Davao Mayor Rody Duterte surged ahead of other candidates including erstwhile frontrunner Senator Grace Poe, the relevance of Daang Matuwid became secondary as corruption was no longer as important an issue with VP Binay’s rating hitting all-time lows, and therefore unlikely to become the next president.

Daang Matuwid was no longer relatable to at least three fourths of the voters since Mayor Rody Duterte had a single-minded message of getting rid of criminality, including big time drug lords. Mayor Duterte’s track record in Davao has been rock solid and did not have the corrupt image association of VP Binay. Since positioning is communicating the relevance and differentiation relative to competition, how was Daang Matuwid going to solve the new pain points pointed out by Mayor Duterte? While criminality was not the top concern of the citizens, Mayor Duterte was able to bring out a latent need and reprioritized this problem to be top of mind. He also promised to do things fast, the only candidate who gave a timetable to his platform. Although the negative association of Daang Matuwid brought forth by VP Binay and Senator Marcos still had to be corrected, the Liberal Party was confronted with a newer and bigger challenge.

This was the story of David versus Goliath retold in Philippine politics, a story of logic more powerful than reason. A charismatic underdog and an ‘uncultured’ provincial mayor somewhere from ‘far away’ Mindanao against a giant of a cabinet secretary born to a political royal family with no less than the Philippine president endorsing and campaigning for him. The new David of Philippine politics had to bring his five stones and ensure that the first one will hit Goliath hard in the battlefield. That first stone was data-driven social media (as compared with the traditional and often unexciting promotion campaigns from the camp of Sec. Roxas).

Key Factors for Success:

Historically, winning a presidential election, like winning market shares in the marketplace, entails a lot of mass media advertising to be top of mind. For Mayor Duterte, preparation and organization were done in 2015 with some regional TV advertising pre-testing as early as 2014.

The game changer in advertising weight was in social media as Mayor Duterte’s followers dominated this channel. Not only did Mayor Duterte’s team hire hundreds of call center agents doing the offense for his social media campaign, he had a lot of townmates who experienced his leadership first hand in Davao defending him. There were lots of psychological warfare such as making him look like the hesitant candidate first, then a series of firsts in presidential elections – fake endorsements and memes. Propaganda was used as offense. His followers and supporters were quick to adopt, some even used fake social media accounts accusing Sec. Roxas of so many things like incompetency, corruption and even rape, and that the Liberal Party was going to cheat in order to win — all of which were untrue.

In contrast, the social media campaign of Sec. Roxas started late and was not as aggressive.  It was quite reactive as some of his voters held back, having experienced being ridiculed and cyber-bullied, with curse words thrown at them with the intent of silencing them. Many of Sec. Roxas followers were talking to each other in their exclusive Facebook fan page and only came out to campaign when Duterte was already gaining. Some volunteers of Sec. Roxas also initiated their share of propaganda against other candidates but as perception is reality in marketing, it was already too late to change perception and the team of Sec. Roxas was no match to Mayor Duterte’s keyboard warriors. One wonders if the team of Sec. Roxas had a social media strategy in the first place.

Message Memorability:
Mayor Duterte 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 make things happen for love of country.

The message of Daang Matuwid by then sacrosanct, was eventually altered by Sec. Roxas to include the willingness to correct past mistakes, but that too came too late.  The term was not the only problem, as toward the end of the second presidential debate, Sec. Roxas added the term ‘Disenteng Pilipino’ (decent or honorable Filipino) to describe what he stood for. It was no doubt a clear differentiation from the “foul-mouthed” Mayor Duterte who was gaining ground. Still ‘disente’ was offensive to some while condescending to others who were not yet for Mar. This alienated Mar even further and enphasized his elitist background more. Imagine, Mar was perceived as not being sympathetic to the daily grind of the masses and now referring to them as being not “disente”. The Duterte die-hard fans protested, citing how their idol swapped himself in exchange for a hostage in the past and now he is being discredited as not being ‘disente’. The Duterte camp succeeded in finding weaknesses for each strength presented by their competitors. In marketing, differentiation is only the second step; brand relevance should be clearly established before targeting for brand preference. What was the value proposition offered by using the word ‘disente’ in the first place? How was this going to solve the daily pain points (long MRT lines, unemployment, etc.) experienced by the masa?

This was also the time some of the followers of many presidentiables started calling the followers of Duterte as ‘Dutertards’ connoting being retarded (Duterte followers countered by calling the Liberal Party ‘Yellowtards’). Alternatively, they were called ‘Bobo’ or ‘Bobotante’ (stupid voters) for having blind loyalty to Duterte. Thanks to self-inflicted injuries, the remarks solidified the emotional connection of the Duterte followers to their idol. To them, they were just bold and brave just like Duterte, but certainly not ‘bobo’ as looked down by others. Now they have more reasons to be united. They were ready not just to protect their idol but also themselves and many even cyber abused anyone against their idol, including those calling their idol a demagogue.

Many identified Duterte followers as having cognitive dissonance. Imagine having a foul-mouthed candidate offending trading partners like USA, Australia, Singapore and even the Pope. But to most Duterte followers, these were all evidence of his fearlessness. In exit polls conducted by TV5-SWS, note that Duterte’s support came mostly from younger, more educated, higher class, more urban men who are not Catholic.

On the other hand, many businessmen who did not know Duterte were not for him. They were nervous because of his connection to the communist party and his unorthodox ways, including the so-called Davao Death Squad to drive out criminals in Davao where he admitted to having killed a few criminals himself.

Indeed for the first time, a major presidential candidate candidly admitted he had no economic platform of his own and will just borrow the platform of his fellow candidates. But he promised to act swiftly just like what he did in Davao. For his track record as mayor for 22 years, he was both well loved and feared. His strength in execution skills as a local executive, his charisma and track record were able to offset his many weaknesses especially from his foul-mouth. His followers became witnesses (apologists to non followers) that the context of his cussing was his impatience to get things done for the people.

For Sec. Roxas, many knew his various high level positions held in government but 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. Needless to say, website visits have gone down an average of 5% a year for the last so many years as the first source in getting information according to Universal McCann. 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, such as being called the father of the business process outsourcing industry in the Philippines, the cheaper medicine acts, Oplan Lambat-Sibat (which resulted to 716 arrests of the 946 most wanted, high profile criminals in the country) 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.

Message Persuasiveness: 

Conversion was hard from the beginning as many people were torn between Mayor Duterte and either Sec. Mar Roxas and Senator Grace Poe.  This easily split the base of Sec. Mar’s market. Sen. Grace Poe’s positioning of ‘Goberynong may Puso’ (government with a heart) did well in the beginning and at one point was the front runner as many people commiserated with her being a foundling. The possibility of being disqualified due to a residency issue as well as whether she would be considered a natural born Filipino also made some people sympathize with her. When obstacles were removed by the Supreme Court, her rating started to deteriorate as people became aware of her “skeletons” in the closest (her pledging allegiance to the US at one time, her husband being an American citizen, her being endorsed and/or supported by many traditional political leaders like Erap Estrada and Danding Cojuangco).

And then Sec. Mar tried to look like ‘masa’, at least that’s how his handlers tried to resonate him with 90% of the voters who are ‘masa’. This too was unsuccessful and in fact backfired for lack of authenticity.

In Metro Manila where MRT is located, Daang Matuwid had another negative connotation; the long lines during rush hours defeated the purpose of saving travel time. There were legal issues that Sec. Roxas tried to resolve in favor of the commuters. But the daily grind became unsolved annoyances. Commuters remembered the constant message of President Aquino ‘Kayo ang boss ko’, which was now an unfulfilled promise magnified by the Duterte group as concrete evidence to not to vote for continuity. If only customer satisfaction metrics formed a major part of the performance evaluation and retention of all government leaders, this could have been avoided.

With economic progress came a false sense of security, it was a fallacy to bank on metrics of economic gains, they were simply countered with more questions on why the poor cannot feel the gains and similar questions that tended to end discussions with no resolutions.

As most people rejected the continuation of Daang Matuwid team of President Aquino, his anointed Sec. Mar carried the brunt. A different branding could have avoided this crisis, identifying and addressing consumer pain points could have zeroed-in on their latent needs.  Involving the real pulse of the masa in top-level campaign planning could have ensured more relevance and a reality check.  Pre-testing key messages could have recognized if it had double meaning, and a pre-mortem in defense marketing could have anticipated most, if not all, of the worst scenarios. Sec. Roxas got a tenth of Metro Manila voters, the commuters voted with their feet and started believing what was peddled to them – that the administration has been incompetent and bureaucratic with analysis paralysis. They presented proof that Metro Manila has broken down, with unfulfilled brand promises and that the real danger was not Mayor Duterte, but giving the administration candidate another chance.

Cluster of Competitive Advantages:

When the criminality message of Mayor Duterte sank in, he persuaded everyone with another single-minded message that connected to his first message, that he will get things done and needed no new economic platform. He will just ‘copy’ the ones of his predecessor, praising them while reminding that many promises have remained promises. His anti-crime and fearless persona, his promise to make things happen, his brutally frank charisma — all became a cluster of advantages. It became harder and harder for other candidates to bring him down. The anger of the people were enough reasons to turn a deaf ear on Mayor Duterte’s foul mouth, this angry segment who wanted instant solution and quick fixes even helped promote the battle cry: ‘Change is coming!’

In the final few days before the election, Mayor Duterte picked up endorsements of major non-Catholic groups such as Iglesia Ni Cristo. This also helped cement some of the undecided voters, 18% of them, some waiting to follow what’s trending. Mayor Duterte’s number of total voters was about 39% of all votes from his previous 33% pre-election rating. This in contrast to an estimated 23.4% of his nearest rival, Sec. Mar, up from his 18-22% pre-election rating.

Organization and Distribution:
Words were being spread that political machinery can deliver additional 10% of the votes, referring to the clout of the Liberal Party.  In reality the actual votes gathered by Mar Roxas on election day was statistically insignificant from his pre-election rating. But elections involve many positions, Mar’s running mate, Congresswoman Leni Robredo, was surging pretty well, from a mere 1% preference rating in 2015 to gaining a tie in the top spot with Senator Bongbong Marcos, the only son of the political adversary of the Aquino clan. She had a much greater chance if she were continuously supported versus the well-funded Marcos.  Electing a Marcos would simply make futile the Edsa People Power of 1986 that saw Pres. Aquino’s mother, President Corazon Aquino, come to power and topple Martial Law dictator, the elder Ferdinand Marcos. Many Filipinos who experienced the loss of freedom and democracy during the Martial Law days came out in full force to stop the revisionist history being peddled by the Marcos camp and found Rep. Robredo the ideal candidate who can stop Senator Marcos and still inspire the Filipino people.  From a scarce resource allocation perspective, the LP placed their bet on the winning horse Rep. Leni Robredo so the Liberal party can continue to make a difference.

It is noteworthy to mention that the combined votes of Mar Roxas and Grace Poe totaled 45% which exceeded that of Rody Duterte’s. Perhaps, under a two party system, the true sentiments of the majority can be expressed in the future. Meantime, Rody Duterte has promised he will watch his mouth carefully, that he wishes everyone to reconcile, and that he will even fly to the Vatican to make amends with the Pope — a good start acknowledging what he needs to improve – perhaps an acknowledgment that his immediate job-to-be-done, is to unify Filipinos painfully divided by this election.

Mayor Rody Duterte is the next president of the Philippines, and for those who did not vote for him (like me), we will need to have a different paradigm and perspective in evaluating people and situations under his administration.  It is now the duty of each and every Filipino citizen to help make Brand Philippines grow, prosper, thrive, and this entails all of us helping Presumptive President-elect Duterte succeed.

Brand Relaunch:

As for Sec. Mar Roxas, will he relaunch in 2022? The field by then might be much more crowded – with possible contenders Vice President Leni Robredo, Senators Alan Cayetano, Grace Poe, Bongbong Marcos, Frank Drilon and comebacking secretary Gibo Teodoro, and who knows, even neophyte senator Joel Villanueva who might do a Grace Poe (i.e., finishing top in the senatorial race and then running for higher position). And since boxing icon Manny Pacquiao has become a senator himself, he may just want to follow the branding footstep of Erap Estrada and target the presidency no less.

Let’s learn the lessons of this 2016 Philippine elections in a way where we must appreciate the freedom of speech we have from our democracy, so we can engage each other in meaningful discussions in the future, for our future.  We cannot afford to be divided, or stay wounded.  We must be one Filipino people for our one and only beloved Philippines.

3 thoughts on “Marketing Lessons of the 2016 Presidential Elections by Josiah Go

  1. Patronage or “gaya-gaya” is another factor, especially if espoused by clan heads. Q: Why did Mar win in Samar-Leyte despite the Yolanda debacle? The local political leaders had a say – that is, after Romualdez “re-imaged” Mar as somebody who did what’s best for the victims. The same could be said of the INC and those coming from Basilan and Maguindanao. My hometown in Negros initially favored Duterte, but when the local leaders revealed that they were for Poe less than a week before election, Poe won by a landslide at 80%!

  2. Joe, excellent analysis and I cannot disagree with anything. This would be an excellent case study – include the disqualification cases of GP and Duterte in the SC; two factors which in the end were huge variables in our country’s destiny. Include the seemingly fatal character flaws of the winning candidate which for some reason even made him more real; the organized ignorance or selective listening of the masses. To those outside of NCR, the MRT mess didn’t matter; but somehow it resonated with the regions outside of it. Yolanda was supposed to have been mishandled badly yet in Leyte and Samar Mar won handily. Include the difficulty in selling brand Mar, which was hampered by his seeming poor record in his previous positions. Include the dilemma of endorsements – why it didn’t work with Pnoy and maybe worked with the INC and Quiboloy. Talk about promises made and promises broken – Pineda was supposed to deliver Pampanga but Duterte won there big time. Party machinery? Overhyped and phony. Up to now I am still scratching my head and wonder what in the world just happened. Both of us are licking our wounds which will take a while to heal.

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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