After two years of presidential campaigning, the signs are down, the newspaper pages have returned to, well, news, and most people are ready to put the whole thing out of their minds. But Stephanie Sharp, principle of Sharp Designs in Hamilton, is not ready to forget the marketing lessons she has picked up from the Barack Obama campaign.

One of the biggies is to maintain a consistent message. Obama’s tagline during the primaries (“Change We Can Believe In”) was tweaked slightly for the general election to “Change We Need.” John McCain, on the other hand, kept changing his message as he tried to define who he was. “This made it very confusing to voters if they were not already on the left or right,” says Sharp.

Sharp urges businesses to follow Obama’s example and keep repeating their messages, because people don’t soak it in the first time they hear it. She cautions them against a common tendency to get tired of their own messages too early and change them too early, before they have been maximally effective.

Sharp will speak on “Marketing Lessons from the Election: What Can You Apply to Your Business?” at NJAWBO Mercer’s marketing roundtable on Wednesday, January 21, at 8:15 a.m. at the Mercadien Group, 3625 Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton. For more information, call 609-392-8724 or E-mail Cost: $15.

Sharp offers other take-home lessons from the Obama campaign that small businesses would do well to heed:

Use consistent branding. Obama, says Sharp, achieved an easily recognizable look through an unchanging logo, with its colors, fonts, and theme of hope and change. Even campaign videos kept in line with Obama’s image: well-done, but not overly slick.

A strong business brand also requires a consistent design across different pieces of marketing collateral.

When she works with her clients, Sharp often sees people whose business cards, brochures, and websites all look different, and she advises instead that “you want the same look and feel so people immediately know it’s you. You want to stand out and be instantly recognizable.” Small or large doesn’t matter, she continues. “If you have professional looking materials, it makes you look bigger than you are.”

Go with a professional. The Obama campaign hired professional marketers rather than outsourcing to consultants, naming managers for each aspect of the campaign, including separate online and video managers. Often an in-house person can be cheaper than a consultant, says Sharp, but this depends on the size of the business. What is critical, however, is that professionals, whether in-house or consulting, immerse themselves in your product or service inside and out.

Sometimes small businesses worry that a professional will be too expensive. Sharp suggests creating a budget and checking costs before making a decision.

Often certain aspects of a job can be done immediately and later ramped up when more money is available.

Combine traditional and online marketing. “The Obama campaign married a lot of traditional offline marketing with online marketing and did a lot with social marketing,” says Sharp. It offered blogs, put videos on You Tube, recorded podcasts, and created profiles on MySpace, FaceBook, and LinkedIn. The campaign also set up a Twitter account, where people enter messages of up to 140 bytes whenever the mood hits them, and it had the most followers of any account on Twitter.

People do business with people they like or trust, explains Sharp, and using social media frequently is a way for potential customers to get to know you better. A website is another way for people to get to know you. Barack Obama’s site helps people understand who he is; it includes his stands on issues as well as a blog that recently has been following his actions as president-elect.

Similarly, when people are on a business’s website, says Sharp, “they should be getting to know the personality of your company and of the people in your company, their philosophy, how they work.”

Like Obama, businesses should use the Internet whenever possible to link to customers. One possibility is to put client testimonials with some entertainment value on You Tube and then use viral media by E-mailing the link to all your family and friends. If a video is sufficiently amusing, the hope is that the recipients will then forward it to their own friends.

Extend ownership to your customers. Through the Obama campaign gave its supporters things to do. For example, they could design T-shirts and bumper stickers using his logo and offer them for sale. This contrasts with many big corporations, says Sharp, who “have the logo police — a person who makes sure the logo is only used in the correct way and only for people who need to have access to it.”

Sharp suggests that businesses try letting go of this control and letting customers create some buzz for them. Even allowing people to do You Tube videos that satirize a business’s commercials creates free advertising. Encouraging customers to complain online can have benefits, too.

“The whole deal with blogs is allowing people to comment,” she says. “Politicians and corporations were nervous — do we allow people to put up incorrect information?” But if people indicate a problem with a product in a blog, she explains, and businesses have the guts to realize people will be saying it anyway, then a corporate person can reply and offer to try to solve the problem. “They may end up with one of their best cheerleaders if they solve it to their satisfaction,” says Sharp. In the end, it’s more important to know as early as possible about product problems so they can be fixed quickly than to try and prevent complaints.

Stay positive. Obama’s ads were generally positive, says Sharp, and even his attack ads weren’t nasty. She compares Obama’s ads with Ronald Reagan’s in that both encouraged pride in being an American. Similarly, says Sharp, businesses should stay on the high ground. “Even when you’re talking to a customer one-on-one and through ads, there’s a way to say you are better than the competition without saying their product sucks.”

Focus on the customer, not on yourself. “Most of Obama’s speeches were you-focused, and that is something that very much translates to companies,” says Sharp. “How many times do brochures and websites talk all about the company and don’t really talk about the customer?”

Sharp grew up in the Texas panhandle and got a bachelor’s in graphic design at West Texas State University in 1984. She married in 1985 and moved with her husband to Slidell, Louisiana, across from New Orleans. There she got her first fulltime job at a design studio, the Papier Group. “They knew I wanted to own my own studio,” she says, “and my two bosses were really good at helping me with a lot of the business aspects.”

A year later the couple moved to Marietta, Georgia, and finally started her own company, Sharp Designs in 1991. The company moved to Hamilton in 2000. She has kept many of her Georgia customers, ironically the ones who needed the most personal hand-holding and who she had thought would look for another design studio closer to home.

Sharp Designs does graphic design, in particular helping companies to express their brands through marketing collateral, corporate and logo identity, and internal communications.

The last lesson Sharp shares from the Obama campaign is not to give up on winning over your competitors’ customers. “When Obama started out, he was a long shot in the Democratic primary,” she says. “Everyone said Hillary’s got it locked up. But he and his people didn’t give up. They made a plan about ‘How can we get people to vote for us.’”

Just as it did for Obama, persistence, marketing plan and a good product or service can help any business to come out on top.

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