Lessons from the Campaign Trail

No matter how they plan to vote on Election Day, retailers can learn a lot about shaping public perception by looking at how candidates run for office.



In just a few short days, we will elect a new president. Some of us will be pleased with the outcome; others will be disappointed. For most of us, however, the primary reaction will be relief that the seemingly endless campaign has come to an end.

Whichever candidate you prefer, there are lessons that we can take from each of their campaigns that apply to the pet industry and our efforts to communicate with lawmakers and the general public. After all, political campaigns are basically high-stakes contests of ideas and tactics.

So what did the candidates do well this year that we should adopt and adapt to our purposes?

Stay on Message
Throughout the election, both major party candidates focused their campaigns on a handful of core messages. When they were asked questions that deviated from those topics, they pivoted—using the question as a jumping-off point to bring the discussion back around to their preferred subject matter. While this may frustrate debate moderators and viewers alike, this kind of discipline helps to drive home key messages.

We have a great story to tell, and we should be telling it often. Rather than allowing circumstances to dictate the aspects of our business that we talk about, we should always be working to bring conversations around to our key messages.

Make It Stick
More than ever before, this year’s election has demonstrated the influence of social media and, by extension, the importance of sticky, shareable concepts. Whether in a crowded primary field or a head-to-head debate, the candidates’ ability to turn personal attacks and policy prescriptions into memorable catchphrases and memes served them well.

Our industry is no stranger to memorable slogans; some of the best-loved taglines of all time have been used to sell pet food and products. We need to harness that creative talent to market our industry and promote our commitment to animal care and responsible pet ownership so it sticks in the public consciousness.

Focus Your Efforts
Running for president presents a logistical challenge like no other. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, and the trick is to allocate your resources—money, media and the candidate—to secure that magic number. Spend too much time in one state and you win in a landslide, but you run the risk of losing elsewhere. Pay for advertising in one expensive media market, and you find yourself unable to compete in three cheaper markets.

This one is especially relevant for the pet industry. We can’t be everywhere at once, and every time we choose to engage on one thing, we’re simultaneously choosing not to engage on another. The industry can—and should—increase our opportunities by increasing the investment in our legislative and regulatory efforts through PIJAC and other organizations. In the meantime, however, we need to do our best to focus on the issues (both positive and negative) and efforts that will have the greatest impact.

Engage Your Allies
While there are some messages that are best delivered by the candidate directly, it’s helpful when friends and allies lend their voices and their resources. Candidates often deploy “surrogates” to speak on their behalf or echo their talking points.  Additionally, they frequently receive uncoordinated “air support” from like-minded individuals and organizations, some of whom focus on positive messages while others prefer to attack the other side. Taken together, these complementary efforts can amplify and translate a candidate’s message to help deliver it to a broader constituency.

The pet industry’s history, steeped in entrepreneurship and family-owned businesses, is something of a hindrance here as it predisposes many in the industry to try to solve problems on their own instead of building coalitions and engaging others. We’re working to overcome that inclination through increased cooperation and communication within the industry and better outreach to prospective allies.

A Final Word of Caution
Ultimately, the outcome of this year’s election will be due in no small part to negative issues associated with both major party candidates. In most cases, candidates expect this and even conduct proactive assessments of their own vulnerabilities to better prepare for their opponents’ attacks. But no matter how much a candidate prepares for a hit, it’s almost impossible to predict the scale and duration of the public’s response.

By employing the same strategies used by the presidential candidates throughout this year’s elections, we can best present ourselves to elected officials and the public. And by preparing to address our liabilities before they’re employed against us, we can do our best to minimize their effects even if we can’t prevent their impact altogether.  

Mike Bober is executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. For more information or to get involved in the industry’s legislative and regulatory efforts, please reach out to Bob Likins at (202) 452-1525 or email via bob@pijac.org


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