Waking up to the interactive 1990s

Marketers asking themselves that perennial question about the future of media communications could do no better than to pick up a few lessons from the interactive TV campaigns of Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.

It was Perot, you’ll remember, who launched his surprisingly strong bid for the White House on CNN’s Larry King Live in February, perhaps forever changing presidential politics. Clinton has kept up a busy interactive schedule of his own, appearing on call-in shows during the New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania primaries. Even President Bush’s handlers have conceded that he may be forced into the strategy.

At this, George Bush faces palpable disadvantages. Less personable and glib than his opponents, Bush strains credibility at every attempt to “connect” with ordinary voters. Since presidential elections hinge more on personality and leadership than issues, this shortcoming could prove fatal to Bush in a volatile election year.

Presidential politics have a way of setting the tone for the rest of the country, and the rise of campaign interactivity has many implications for the stewards of American brands. In an age of brand and media clutter, personality counts more than actual brand attributes or advertising claims, responding to consumers’ demands weighs more heavily than dictating choices. Intimacy with a particular consumer niche or value – or at least the appearance of creating it – counts more than mass appeal.

What’s important here is the direction that the communications flow is tending. in the past, marketers and their ad agencies always considered commercial messages a one-way street – they communicated a brand’s desires, qualities and image down to a willing consumer audience. Now Americans – both as voters and consumers – are forcing the information flow back the other way. Some feature of interactivity will have to play a key role in all brand-building of the future.

America’s new call-in mentality has an additional feature that will affect product marketing. It is highly reactive. As moods shift and consumer demands change virtually overnight, the category-comer may not necessarily be the brand with the highest recognition or equity, or even the best ads.

Winners will be products and services than can quickly glom onto an emerging trend and then ride it until the next sudden shift. This nimbleness can already be seen in the success of such diverse brands as the Discover and Universal cards, Gap clothes and Diet Pepsi.

One thing is certain. The old nostrums of dictating solutions to Americans, defining your personality by denigrating the competition, is not going to sell. While Perot and Clinton have been making their call-in appearances, exposing their personalities to viewers, Vice President Dan Quayle has been stumping the country, railing against Murphy Brown and the “cultural elite.” It won’t work in a year when America is in no mood to be divided along traditional party lines.

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