5 Unexpected Marketing Lessons From U.S. Presidents

Small-business owners can learn more than just leadership tips from our nation's presidents.
Contributor, Amex OPEN Forum
February 17, 2014

If you're a U.S. president, you have to both be a leader and a marketer every day. From the campaign trail to a Capitol Hill dustup, the marketing of ideas—and ideals—has always been at the heart of the task.

Small-business owners are no different. The message you send to clients and prospective customers must also convey a sense of leadership, as well as the business's underlying ideals. Successfully communicating your vision connects you to a constituency that will come back, time and again. 

Marketing Smarts

Campaigner ran a recent survey looking at the history of U.S. presidential campaigns. It asked small-business owners which president they would choose to head up their marketing teams. One third chose John F. Kennedy, among all past presidents.

Why JFK? They liked his creativity on the trail—and Kennedy was among the first to grasp and use the power of television, when a lot of candidates hadn't yet attempted to capitalize on the medium in an election. That's marketing savvy.

Lessons From the Oval Office

Our past presidents understood that a winning pitch is at the heart of a successful enterprise. Let's look at some key leadership lessons from the Oval Office, ones that can help you accomplish your marketing goals.

1. Plan for victory, prepare for battle. 

 

President George Washington

 

President George Washington knew a little about the struggle that comes with leadership. He said, in 1790, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” The best leaders will tell you, it's not enough to envision the wanted outcome; you have to prepare for what can go wrong out there in the field.

Marketers should map out the details of every contingency, sometimes as if lives depend upon it (the life of your business does). The plan should include a calendar and clear descriptions of the moves that will get your small business from Point A to B, the amount of time it will take, and also your strategic responses to possible outcomes—wins and losses.

2. Don't leave it to a swing vote. 

 

FDR At The White House  Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “If you treat people right they will treat you right … 90 percent of the time.”

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “If you treat people right they will treat you right … 90 percent of the time.” How can you relate this to marketing? You need to understand your audience and what messages they will welcome. Take care to avoid the ones they won't. Surround your people with ideas that activate them. Segment your marketing lists, and only send well-matched content to the people that it best fits. And then, finally, accept that some of the time, all marketing—even the kind that treats its audience right—gets challenged. That's the nature of the 10 percent Roosevelt's talking about.

3. Make it a celebration. 

 

Abraham Lincoln

 

Smart politicians and marketers alike understand the value of entertaining your constituency while working to get them on board. Abraham Lincoln knew this to be true. “I am a firm believer in the people," he once said. "If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. And beer.” Customers want sincerity, the truth and data, but they also love a party, giveaways and invitations to special events. There isn't a small business that can't benefit from pairing its marketing campaign with great premiums. Reward the loyal. Entice the prospective. Listen to Lincoln.

4. Apathy is out there, so stir the hearts of your people. 

 

Funeral Held For Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch  President Bill Clinton said, “Being president is like running a cemetery. You’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.”

 

President Bill Clinton said, “Being president is like running a cemetery. You’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.” Running a business is like running a nation. Part of it is getting customers to listen to your message in the middle of a lot of distraction. One way to avoid the marketing cemetery is to encourage your prospects to stand up and take action alongside you. Provide solid, relevant content with a call-to-action in every one of your campaigns. Make it second nature for your audiences to cast their vote with click now or sign up here.

5. Lean in to visions and dreams. 

 

US President Barack Obama (L) jokes with  Appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, in 2008, President Barack Obama read the famed Top Ten list.

 

Appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, in 2008, President Barack Obama read the famed Top Ten list. At the end of it, he got to include a sly (tongue in cheek) reference to future presidential possibilities: "Three words ... Vice President Oprah.” Here's the lesson: Nothing arrests attention like a marketing move that plays into your base's best fantasies. Identify what gets your audience dreaming, and reference those things to keep them engaged. (And they also appreciate a sense of humor along the way.)

It's intriguing that these visionaries who've led a nation can provide such templates for steering your small business. Take these tips from America's most prolific leaders, and your small business will be headed for an Oval Office all its own.

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Photos: Thinkstock, Getty Images

Contributor, Amex OPEN Forum