Marketing and politics: Lessons to learn

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jim buckshon

james buckshonThere are obviously different challenges in the sales and marketing cycle in winning construction business and elected office. Yet perhaps we can learn some lessons from the political campaigning process, related to budget, innovation, creativity and sometimes luck.

These thoughts come to mind after the US midterm elections and the impending Vancouver, Canada municipal voting, where my younger brother, James (Jim) Buckshon has decided to seek election as a Vancouver Park Board commissioner.

He’s got an uphill battle. For some reason, Canadian municipal politics have been dominated by parties not officially associated with their provincial and federal counterparts, but often with the same cast of characters behind the scenes. So, in Vancouver, you have the mis-named Non-Partisan Association with its slate of candidates, who, if you scratch a bit beneath the surface, would quickly realize these are Conservatives (somewhat similar to US Republicans.) Then there is Vision, which might be seen as a centre-left party, and others representing Greens and the further-left labour movement.

Overlaying this party-slate environment, there are two peculiarities relating to Vancouver’s election process. First, candidates run on city-wide mandates — everyone in the city can vote for every candidate. There are no wards or districts. Secondly, Vancouver is the only city in Canada (and perhaps one of only a few, if not the only one in the world), where parks commissioners are selected through an elected process.

My brother Jim (he has used his legal name James in his candidacy), decided he didn’t like the way the current municipal parks commissioners were doing things, and paid the $100 fee to add his name to the candidates roll. He has achieved some recognition and success in Vancouver’s arts and music community, managing rehearsal space, and more recently, theatrical productions.  But I wouldn’t say he is a household name in the city of  about 600,000. (The greater Vancouver metropolitan area of course has a much larger population, but Jim is running within the city proper.)

If you think you have trouble getting attention for your marketing if you are a small AEC business/practice, consider the challenges of running as an “unknown” where you have to find voters everywhere within the city — but where (if you used it) mass media would reach hundreds of thousands of unqualified out-of-zone voters.

Add to this, you can’t simply narrow your marketing to a small district or ward. Jim needs to find votes everywhere in the city, from the rough-and-ready (and drug-infested) downtown Eastside, to the multi-million dollar homes in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

And finally, he has chosen to run as one of six independent candidates among 31 overall, for the park board, while there are other much-higher profile, and equally contested, races for municipal councillors, mayor, and school trustees. Like — background noise — you can imagine how challenging this can be.

If he wins election, his compensation will be about $8,000 a year, plus a modest expense stipend. So this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.

In effect, his marketing has been restricted to free social media, all candidates meetings, and local media allowing all candidates some voice with brief interview or video opportunities.

He’s done quite well at the all candidates meetings, winning applause and some votes. And he has a clear platform — arguing that the current park commissioners have a thing against real grass in the parks, while they sell out prime-sites for expensive concessions, and fail to develop simple, user and family friendly parks.

Maybe he’ll have luck. His name starts with B, putting him near the top of the candidate list — a good thing, when there is a long list of names and you don’t know any of them. The competing slates are fighting hard and there will probably be vote splitting. Finally, he doesn’t need to be first, second, or even third in popular vote to win a seat — he could do it at position seven.

But, as we joked about the scene at his “campaign headquarters” (more accurately his apartment, and office during work hours), he can’t do one or both of the two options that would probably help him win the most.

He could spend a fortune on the campaign.

In a race where most candidates keep their budgets to the bare minimum, obviously if he had a few hundred thousand dollars (or millions) to blow, he might be able to stir up a strong and highly visible campaign. This would be a vanity effort, however, and might well backfire — I mean, if someone is spending so much money to run for an otherwise obscure office, you might ask questions about his sanity, rather than his suitability for the work.

He could be “political” and spend his time building relationships to be nominated as one of the chosen candidates by the slate most likely to win.

The party system rules politics, it seems, and so the biggest challenge for most candidates is less winning the vote (if they are riding the party coat-tales) then receiving the party’s nomination.  We’ve known of otherwise obscure candidates who win seats or elected office when their party rides a crest and captures votes and districts where they weren’t expected to win. But of course this would mean he would have to suck up to the party rules, and work for months or even years at behind-the-scenes campaigning to win the right party’s nomination.

These points probably don’t matter to my brother. He’s enjoying the race. He hasn’t done anything offensive, and although he hasn’t linked his business to his campaign, the publicity probably won’t hurt him. He’s having fun poking holes in the establishment, speaking his mind, and participating in the process. Maybe he’ll defy the odds and win — but if he worried about that, he would lose from the start.

Thankfully, for most of us, our marketing challenges aren’t quite as great as Jim’s efforts to win a spot in a crazily overcrowded municipal election race. We can focus much more intensively and strategize to obtain revenue within our chosen niches, spending money strategically because of the potential results. Yet, there are similarities. There’s lots of background noise, competition, and seemingly strange rules of the game, which are often difficult to decipher.

I can’t vote for Jim, but hope if you are in Vancouver, you will.

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