The early bird gets the worm

An old advertising campaign for Head and Shoulders shampoo featured the slogan “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It’s an important point to remember in any marketing effort. If your audience’s first impression of you is a negative one, you’re immediately behind the 8-ball. You now have to spend a lot more effort and resources to change that first impression than if you had simply given a good first impression.

A major part of this is making sure that you are the one defining yourself. This means being proactive, getting your message out there first and making sure that you’re the one who frames the situation. Doing so won’t guarantee you success. But it will make your chances of success much better than if you let your competition get its message out first.

This is true in any field. But I find it especially interesting to watch in politics. The American political landscape is littered with the corpses of political campaigns that failed in large part because they let the other side define them, rather than defining themselves. Michael Dukakis went from a double-digit lead in the polls in early summer 1988 to losing the Presidential Election by eight points that November because he sat back and let George H.W. Bush define him as weak and soft on crime and defense. Twenty years later, a little-known U.S. Senator from Illinois won the Presidency in large part because he got out first and framed the better-known John McCain as an extension of the very unpopular outgoing President, George W. Bush.

The 2010 Midterm Elections are less than two months away. And here in Pennsylvania, where I live, the same factor may have decided the state’s U.S. Senate election.

Pat Toomey is the Republican nominee. After three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he served as President of the Club for Growth for more than four years. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was 97. That’s nine points higher than the rating held by former Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost re-election four years ago by almost 18%. Yet Toomey is, based on polling, on his way to a fairly easy victory over Democratic nominee Joe Sestak this November.

Why? The very different political climate certainly has something to do with it. But Toomey went a long way toward ensuring his election by getting his message out there first. He put his first ads up in June, when both he and Sestak were still relatively unknown outside of their own parties and former Congressional Districts. Toomey portrayed himself as the common sense candidate and Sestak as the out of touch and extreme candidate. The electorate got a very good first impression of Toomey and a very bad one of Sestak.

Sestak, on the other hand, didn’t put his first ads on the air until September. By then, the narrative had been set. Yes, Sestak’s campaign sent out emails to those on its mailing list and made some appearances. But he was far slower in getting his message out to the masses. And now, only seven weeks from Election Day, he faces a very steep uphill climb to change that first impression.

Everyone who is responsible for any aspect of promoting a brand should heed the moral of this story and the many others like it in politics. In good times and bad, make sure your story is the one that gets out there first. Make sure your audience is hearing your voice before it hears anyone else’s voice. Be proactive, not reactive. And make sure that first impression is the best one it can be.

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