Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cult brands, Facebook and Sarah Palin

I don't plan to spend much time discussing politics on this blog. If you want evidence of my political beliefs, it's not hard to find. But political campaigns and policy debates often provide useful public relations and marketing case studies, and Sarah Palin's decision to scrub her Facebook page of negative comments is one example.

Let me state a bias up front: I'm no fan of Sarah Palin. Furthermore, I'm an advocate of online transparency who recently has counseled his own employer to let stand harshly negative comments on a Facebook page. That said, from the point of view of enhancing her brand, Palin is probably smart to stifle dissent on her Facebook page.

Think of Palin as a cult brand, with a relatively small but highly devoted following -- much like Apple was in the 1990s. Every cult brand eventually faces the same dilemma: Continue to cater exclusively to a small but loyal customer base, or try to branch out and risk alienating your original customers. Apple solved this dilemma with the iPod. The company created a device consistent with its brand -- favoring ease of use and elegance of design -- without requiring iPod buyers to switch to the Macintosh computer operating system.

But a politician as divisive and radical as Palin doesn't have an equivalent option. She can't lurch to the center without alienating her rabid right-wing followers. Instead, she needs to convince mainstream Americans -- for lack of a better term -- that their values are actually not so different from her values, or from those of her devotees. Hence Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" metaphor; she's appealing to motherhood, one of the most common values Americans share.

Allowing her critics to skewer her on Facebook isn't going to help Palin broaden her appeal. Some of those comments may actually remind people there are good reasons not to like Palin. And from Palin's perspective, responding to all those negative comments, which her followers are bound to do, is not a good use of their time. She'd much rather have them reading her books, listening to her speeches, and supporting the candidates she endorses. Facebook is a one-way channel for Palin, and while that may contradict the ethos of social media, it seems to be working quite well for her. Bottom line, the only people she alienates by deleting negative comments are people she'll never win over anyway.

The problem with this strategy is that it may limit what Palin can achieve. It's perfect for someone who wants to be a political kingmaker, reliably delivering votes for the candidates of her choosing. What she's saying is, "I'm the head of a private club. Anyone can join, but only on my terms, and on the terms of the other members." That is not a winning message for a presidential candidate.

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