Mark Penn: Corporations Must Adapt Or Die
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Mark Penn: Corporations Must Adapt Or Die

Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn has called on corporations to learn from political campaign techniques, or face becoming "defeated brands".

Arun Sudhaman

WASHINGTON, DC--Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn has called on corporations to learn from political campaign techniques, at the Holmes Report’s ThinkTank Live conference today in Washington DC.

In an address that focused on the intersection of politics and brands, Penn pointed out that many corporations need to better combine numbers and creativity to determine their communications strategies.

Penn used a number of examples from his lengthy political career to try and prove his point, from Bill Clinton’s successful targeting of ‘soccer moms’, to Tony Blair’s re-election for a third term in 2005.

“The reason why political campaigns move so quickly is they have a finite deadline,” said Penn. “Corporations can relaunch and push things back, but you can’t do that in politics. When you are in politics, 49 to 51 is the difference between everything and nothing. You have that pressure that builds up that requires action.”

Penn noted that in the Clinton campaign, the team often made potential Republican ads, testing responses to find one that could defeat the attack. It was an approach that eventually proved successful for Microsoft during its anti-trust battles. “We get clients to acknowledge the worst about what anyone could be saying,” he said, adding that corporations need to respond to attack ads as quickly as political candidates.

In addition, the pollster pointed out that brands should be more willing to turn campaigns into a choice, in the manner of Blair’s 2005 campaign and Obama’s expected platform for re-election. “Corporations, typically, are most reticent to do this,” he said.

The importance of correcting misperceptions, added Penn, is critical. “Just as in politics, when you have a campaign that is against you, you have to draw a line in the sand,” he said. He used the example of McDonald’s to illustrate the point, noting that the company had faced down criticism by “telling people the true facts in a clear way and acknowledging that they had heard them.”

Penn also asserted that creativity and insight should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. “Sometimes people accuse polls of being crack cocaine. Getting creativity in line with insight is the most effective way to to do it. It’s not one or the other.”

And he said that, ultimately, corporations need to tell people what they are going to do and keep promises. “How did President Clinton survive the impeachment process? He kept his promises to the American people. Had he not, the outcome would have been clearly different.”

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