Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The 2008 Democratic Playbook... Winning the Google Way

Ed Dandridge is Managing Partner of BrandSphere, a business development and political consulting firm. A commentator on business, branding and political affairs, Ed serves on the Board of Directors of the NY-American Marketing Association and is a Trustee of the Museum for African Art.

Many of our corporate clients are chatting about the April Wall Street Journal article that pointed out the keys to Google’s success. In a few short years, Google has evolved from a cool little search engine into a web juggernaut with the revenue and innnovation necessary to overtake Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay.

The WSJ article was written by Gary Hamel, the director of the Woodside Institute and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Professor Hamel’s discussion of Google was aimed at corporate chieftains, but little did he know just how applicable his findings are to national Democratic Party dynamics.

Here are just a couple of Professor Hamel’s points about Google to which kingmakers in the Democratic Party should pay close attention:

1. “In recent years we have witnessed adaptation failures by incumbents across a wide variety of industries: airlines, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, newspapers, and recorded music. In many cases, companies haven't been changing as fast as the world around them. What the laggards have failed to grasp is that what matters most today is not a company's competitive advantage at a point in time, but its evolutionary advantage over time. Google gets this.”

What is the Democratic Party’s evolutionary advantage over time…? The Democratic Party used to be the principled protector and advocate for middle class voters and those aspiring to join the middle class. This constituency-based view of government served as an anchor and a constant reminder of the nameless millions of Americans who relied on Democrats for competitive wages, safer neighborhoods and effective schools.

Looking forward to 2008, Democratic kingmakers would be wise to shift the focus from their all-consuming parlor games of “who can win” and get out in the streets and valleys across the country and listen and learn about the realities of what it means to be middle class today. That’s something you can’t grasp from conducting a focus group.

2. “Executives often make the mistake of falling in love with a winsome business model. While fidelity is a virtue in marriage, it's a handicap in business. Google wants to grow its online ad business into the distant future, but its self-conception stretches far beyond its current revenue model. It is driven by an open-ended mission to organize the world's knowledge or, as one VP put it, raise the world's IQ. This vision animates a restless search for new opportunities.”

Just as Google recognizes that its best chance of winning the online ad business in the foreseeable future is tied to its vision about how the world will acquire, communicate and exchange knowledge in future generations; Democrats need to remember that retaking Congress this fall and the White House in 2008 is not a “business model.”

The electoral success Democrats covet is a byproduct of a vision that inspires passion, enthusiasm and selfless contributions of many different people united by a common goal. When the business model becomes a numbers game: tracking competitive seats, raising money and locking up consultants, failure is just around the corner… again.

3. “When power is concentrated at the top, a tradition-bound executive team can hold a company's capacity to change hostage to its own ability to adapt. That's why it usually takes a financial meltdown and leadership change to set a company on a new course.”

Democrats have had plenty of meltdowns recently, but no leadership changes. The cold hard truth is that for the last 25 years, the Democratic Party has been run by a small group of decision makers. When they came to Washington to throw Richard Nixon out of office and clean up government, they thought of themselves as true reformers – and they were.

But that was then and this is now, and the Democratic Party needs more inclusive and representative leadership that reflects the true face of the party at the grassroots level where elections are won or lost. So long as the Democratic Party stubbornly honors its tradition, it misses the opportunity to groom and prepare the next generation of leaders who can connect with the vast numbers of young adults, minorities and women who don’t vote because they can’t see the difference Democrats and Republicans.

4. “Google has invested heavily in building a highly transparent organization that makes it easy to share ideas, poll peers, recruit volunteers, and build natural constituencies for change… In most companies there are rigidities that perpetuate historical patterns of resource allocation. Managers eager to defend their power horde capital and talent even when those could be better used elsewhere. A dearth of new strategic options means that legacy projects get over-resourced while the future goes begging.”

As The Hill recently reported, the staffs of Democratic Members of Congress are almost uniformly white and male. The numbers are even worse among political advisors, fundraisers, pollsters, media consultants and leadership of Democratic Party Committees.

Until the Democratic Party adopts policies and procedures to insure that the best ideas are heard and that the most qualified individuals are recruited, it will continue to operate more like a private club in which the newly initiated are mentored and sponsored by deep-pocketed family and friends.

Until this anachronism is replaced with a transparent process driven by results-based criteria that factors in true representation, Democrats will continue to spend vital resources on last minute GOTV efforts trying to make up with disaffected members of its base, while Republicans are free to pick away at swing voters

5. “Evolution demands a lot of new experiments; but experimentation takes time and money, scarce commodities when every hour of time and every dollar of capital have already been allocated to some "mission critical" project. That's why every Google developer can spend up to 20% of his time working on off-budget, out-of-scope projects. This time is more than a perk; it's Google's seed corn for the future. The payoff? In one recent period, more than half of Google's newly launched products could trace their origins to a 20% project.”

What is it about politics that makes otherwise shrewd, smart and sophisticated individuals throw accountability and results out the window? Given that Democratic fundraisers and big ticket donors continue to back the same horses that never win, is it at all surprising that the blogosphere is now the true environment for fresh ideas and voices coming from the Democrats?

Sure, much of what is posted in the blogosphere is unrealistic and otherwise infeasible, but as Google points out, all success needs is for one out of every five ideas to work. The odds are even better when those ideas come from five divergent points of view and personal experiences. I for one am willing to bet that a team of five disparate bloggers would give five of our party’s usual suspects a run for their money.

Oh yeah… that’s already happening, all across the country.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cory's Kind of Love

Ed Dandridge is Managing Partner of BrandSphere, a business development and political consulting firm. A commentator on business, branding and political affairs, Ed serves on the Board of Directors of the NY-American Marketing Association and is a Trustee of the Museum for African Art.

It was with no small amount of pride that all of us at BrandSphere watched this week as our former client, Cory Booker, became Mayor Booker. Almost everyone in Newark has high expectations for the Booker Administration. These expectations are well deserved – Newark is an urban landscape of limitless possibility facing some immediate challenges.

For too long, we’ve seen the news stories about Newark’s violence and shortage of quality affordable housing. What we haven’t heard about are the diverse men and women of Newark of all races and religions who work each and every day to make their city safer, cleaner and more livable. These are the people that Mayor Booker has fought for and stood with for more than a decade.

Sadly, all too often Sharpe James publicly claimed that Newark’s underperforming public schools weren’t his responsibility. But what goes unreported is that as the home to several leading universities, Newark is a hub of higher learning. This network of education and scholarship will play a key role in Mayor Booker’s plan for improving Newark’s schools so that they effectively prepare graduates for real opportunity and advancement.

Lots of people drive by Newark on the Turnpike; but how many motorists take note of the fact that Newark is graced with a port, railways and an airport? Collectively, these resources represent a gateway to the global marketplace. Mayor Booker will leverage this under utilized infrastructure to stimulate the local economy, create more jobs and deliver on his pledge of creating economic abundance for the people of Newark at every level of the economic ladder.

All it takes is two minutes in Cory Booker’s presence to know that he is smart, competent and deeply committed to restoring Newark to its rightful place as one of our country’s urban treasures. Those of us who have had the opportunity to work with Cory on his path to becoming Mayor Booker know what lies ahead.

In the morning, Mayor Booker will be out in front of schools, greeting children, encouraging them to learn so they can grow up to become leaders. At night, Mayor Booker will visit the most troubled communities to listen to residents about what they need to make their neighborhoods safer. In between, Mayor Booker will turn his attention to City Hall where he will use his broom to sweep in municipal reform that will create responsive and responsible government.

In other words, Mayor Booker will do his part. Now it is time for the rest of us – the business community, faith-based institutions, community organizations and urban reformers – to do ours.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Conventional Wisdom and the Democratic Brand

Ed Dandridge is Managing Partner of BrandSphere, a business development and political consulting firm. A commentator on business, branding and political affairs, Ed serves on the Board of Directors of the NY-American Marketing Association and is a Trustee of the Museum for African Art.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party these days is that the political pundits and analysts critiquing the party’s brand don’t do branding for a living. Among those few who have worked extensively in branding and in politics, the Democratic brand is in better shape than many have been led to believe.

But first, let’s clearly define what we mean by a brand. Just as in marketing, a political brand isn’t about a logo or a tagline. James Gregory, former corporate advertising advisor to The Wall Street Journal and commentator on brand effectiveness, defines branding in more inclusive terms:
“The norm for many about to be born, or born again through structural change, is to fashion a new identity, i.e., visual expression, name, logo, colors and nomenclature system… This can be problematical… branding is at once a more inclusive and more focused concept that either identity or image… branding is the complete ethos and experience summed up in reputation and consciously projected to select audiences.” (emphasis added)
So there it is. But what does it mean? And what does it mean for a Democratic Party intent on winning back both Houses of Congress this year and the White House in 2008? Quite simply, the Democratic Party brand is far more than the sum of its parts. The brand includes, but is bigger than slogans, issues, proposed legislation, policy initiatives, leadership or vision. The Democratic brand is all of the above. As Mr. Gregory’s definition suggests, an effective brand is an expensive proposition built over a sustained period of time. That’s why branding professionals are watching the Democrat’s efforts in 2006 with keen interest. For all the criticism about a lack of a Democratic Party “grand vision,” branding professionals understand that connecting with voters will be more about how the vision is “consciously projected to select audiences.”

Karl Rove has been clear about his intent to once again tag Democrats with the “tax and spend” label. Ironically, the more Democrats respond to the pressure to package and bundle initiatives in order to produce a vision, the more they play right into Rove’s hands. When Democrats role out their ambitious national agenda later this year, Karl Rove will have verifiable proof of his “tax and spend” claim.

In 2006, voters don’t want a grand vision. That’s what they got with George Bush and that’s why nearly 7 out of 10 voters feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. To be effective this mid-term, from a branding perspective Democrats will need to proactively manage and position two brands: the national Democratic Party brand and the local state/district brand.

Nationally, Democrats must clearly frame the election in terms of change vs. more of the same. To effectively convey this, the Democratic Party itself must manifest change – new surrogates bringing new voices and perspectives into the national debate, new distribution vehicles like pod casting and new content like branded entertainment with Democratic messages and policies embedded in anime, music and interactive games. Just as leading national brand advertisers are migrating from thirty second ads to experiential marketing, so too must the national Democratic Party deliver its change message differently.

If the national brand is about change, then the local Democratic brand must also defy conventional wisdom. In this regard, Casey’s run against Santorum is truly inspired. Regionally, it presents the local party in moderate, pro-choice terms that deprive Republicans of their typical liberal smear tactics. Equally visionary is Harold Ford’s senate candidacy in Tennessee – a red trending state longing to return to its roots by electing someone like Ford capable of rising above partisanship to become a senator-statesman in the mold of Howard Baker, a man who understood the meaning of words like consensus.

Most encouraging of all are the slew of local ballot initiatives championed by Democrats which are sure to represent change in the mind of the electorate. From privately funded embryonic stem cell research in Missouri to a minimum wage increase in Arizona, Democrats are standing on the right side of important issues that voters see in moral terms. Anyone in branding will tell you it’s about establishing an emotional connection, demonstrating that you understand and can relate.

For the national Democratic Party in 2006 the emotional connection of the brand will be: change or more of the same? For local Democrats, the emotional connection will be moral issues that that directly touch the hearts of voters. Enough already about what the brand stands for – there’s work to be done!

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Importance of Branding Your Small Business

Ed Dandridge is Managing Partner of BrandSphere, a business development and political consulting firm. A commentator on business, branding and political affairs, Ed serves on the Board of Directors of the NY-American Marketing Association and is a Trustee of the Museum for African Art.

The Value of a Brand in Today’s World

Among small business owners, the idea of “branding” usually takes a back seat to the day-to-day realities of running the business. For many small business owners, the idea of a brand is nothing more than a waste of precious capital on slick advertising or glib public relations. For many small business owners, especially those with limited access to capital – as is the case most especially among men of color – the idea of a brand is a luxury they simply can’t afford.

In place of a brand, most minority owned small businesses are extensions of their owners. This well established practice dates back several generations when closely knit communities of African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups for that matter, had limited options and therefore were loyal patrons of businesses owned and operated by members of their communities. As quaint as this legacy is, the plain truth is that in today’s economy never has building a strong brand been more critical for small businesses owned by African American men.

Why? The answer can be summed up in two words: increased competition. Our current shaky economic climate and deep concerns about security and public safety have shaken consumer confidence. In this atmosphere, consumer purchasing decisions are influenced by reliability, reputation and results. If your small business is not recognized among your targeted customer base for these attributes, your are at a distinct disadvantage.

While competitive pricing is and will always be an initial advantage, low cost good and services that are not reliable do not retain customers. As a result, it is increasingly unrealistic for African American male small business owners to assume that networking, relationships and personality are enough to capture and keep customers. This is where the value of a strong brand – or reputation -- can make all the difference.

For African American entrepreneurs, allocating the necessary resources to define, develop and nurture a positive brand that helps your business stand out from the crowd is a worthwhile investment. This is the essence of branding small businesses –establishing a word-of-mouth momentum of awareness and attention among customers. In turn, an effective brand will confer credibility and distinguish your business from your competitors...

A brand is much more than tactics like a tagline, press release or launch party. Rather, a brand encompasses all of these activities and coordinates them so that they work in harmony to deliver immediate recall and longer term favorable perceptions about your business among your customer base. A brand is the result of an investment in a dedicated strategy, active coordination of messages and a sustained level of resources to consistently reach your customers.

While a brand does require an investment, more importantly, it generates a return that produces clear and compelling benefits for African American entrepreneurs:

A Positive Brand Will…

  • Allow you to define your business
  • Attract financial investment
  • Facilitate business relationships
  • Accelerate growth and innovation
  • Help to provide cover in a crisis

A Lack of A Brand Will…

  • Allow others to define your business
  • Increase the cost of customer acquisition
  • Create an easy target for competitors
  • Slow growth
  • Allow a crisis to define your business

An effective brand -- reputation and image -- that conveys your small business’ unique value and benefits to your customers has a lasting and positive effect on your bottom line. For African American men, a brand is no longer a luxury; it is a critical necessity.