Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Reform school

Having decided some time back to take my own political activities in a different direction, I'm somewhat hesitant to comment on reform efforts in the Libertarian Party. However, Brad Spangler asked for my opinion on his own thoughts. And my thoughts on the subject are too long to constrain to a mere comment response. So. Here we go.

The Libertarian Reform Caucus's prescriptions seem very internally focused on the party -- on its platforms, its bylaws, its membership oath ... on the organization.

Brad's critique seems, at first blush, to take the opposite tack. He thinks that what's needed is not a "softening" of approach, but rather a concentration on creating more people who like the party's ideology.

What's missing here?

To explain, I'm going to have to descend into marketing-speak. I hate to do that, because there's great potential for misunderstanding. A political party is not a sixpack of beer or a food processor or a knick-knack. It is not obvious that the techniques used to sell any of those things can be easily adapted to the use of a political party. Nonetheless, there are parallels -- and one of the problems is that the analogies are misunderstood.

Both the LRC and Brad seem to think that the party is the product. It isn't. It's the store.

The platform isn't the product, either. It's the store's mission statement. The bylaws aren't the product -- they're the operations manual. The oath ... well, let's just leave the oath alone for now. It's a subject of interest, but not especially relevant to where I'm going with this.

The party is the store. The products on the shelves are candidates, policy proposals and such.

You don't sell the store. You sell the products.

You don't sell the store's mission statement. You sell the store's products.

You don't sell the store's policy manual. You sell the store's products.

And, in the case of a political party, we're talking mail order, not retail floor space. The customer doesn't -- or at least shouldn't -- have to actually visit the store to get the products. They're available at finer polling places everywhere.

Are we on the same page so far? Okay. Point two:

One of the basics of sales doctrine is that you sell benefits, not features.

Kentucky Tavern is straight bourbon whiskey. By volume, it's 40% alcohol (80 proof). It's bottled by Glenmore Distilleries of Owensboro, Kentucky. Those are its features.

Kentucky Tavern tastes good, it's cheap and it gets me plonked (says the review: "Bright amber hue. Fiery wood-accented aromas. A soft attack leads to a medium-bodied palate. Slightly hot, woody finish. Straightforward.") Those are its benefits.

Read the two paragraphs above. Think real hard. Try to figure out which paragraph describes my reasons for purchasing a bottle of Kentucky Tavern.

Harry Browne gets this one right with The Great Libertarian Offer. Instead of flogging the features of libertarianism -- the ideological fine points, the philosophical highlights -- he tries to explain to his readers what's in it for them. If the book has a failing, it's that Harry is still trying to sell the store -- the Libertarian Party or libertarian ideology -- rather than the product. But at least he's selling benefits instead of features, and that's a start.

Any approach that focuses on:

a) selling ideology (feature) instead of policy outcomes (benefits); and

b) selling the party (store) instead of its candidates and policies (products)

... is doomed to fail. Especially in politics, because there's a third element involved.

The fact is that most people aren't ideologues or intellectuals. It's difficult for those of us who are ideologues or intellectuals to see that -- we assume that most people are like us. That assumption is incorrect.

Ideologues and intellectuals are the shopkeepers of politics. We keep the store open. We stock the shelves. We sweep the floors.

Most people don't want to "join" a party. They don't want to man the cash register, unload the truck, put the food in the freezers or mop. They want to walk in, buy what they came for and get the hell out. They are customers, not shopkeepers. They want to vote for candidates whom they believe are on their side ... and then they want to go home and tune in to the latest episode of American Idol.

There is such a thing as party identification, of course. Many people classify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. A few of them are the shopkeepers -- the ideologues and intellectuals -- of those parties. Most of them are just frequent customers who've developed a habit of going to the store where they think they're getting the best deal. Just as they do most of their shopping at Wal-Mart or buy most of their burgers from McDonald's, they "buy" most of their political representation from the GOP or the Democrats. That might be habit -- daddy shopped there, grandpa shopped there, why go anywhere else? Or, in all too many cases, it may be because only one party has a well-stocked "store" -- candidates, policy proposals and signage to call attention to them -- in the neighborhood.

The LP can't count on habit to drive party allegiance, because the Democrats and Republicans have a 150+ year head start. And all the neighborhood locations, signage and advertising in the world won't get the job done unless you've got the goods. "Branding" is only effective if there's something to "brand" that's saleable in its own right. Nike brand shoes sell like hotcakes. Nike brand air wouldn't sell at all.

If the LP is to succeed, it needs to start recruiting customers instead of shopkeepers. It needs to sell the products instead of the store. And it needs to sell the benefits instead of the features.

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