Coakley's Failed Senate Bid: Four Lessons for Healthcare Marketers

Gienna Shaw, January 20, 2010

There are lessons aplenty for marketing, advertising, and communications professionals from the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race that put conservative Republican Scott Brown into the seat previously held by the late Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who couldn't have lost a race in this state if he tried.

Yesterday's election was, without doubt, a referendum on healthcare reform. But Democrat Martha Coakley's communications strategy (if you could call it a strategy) also helped her lose a seat that hasn't been held by a Republican in decades. Here's what went wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own marketing and communications efforts.

The sense of entitlement
Right off the bat, Coakley acted as though she was the only candidate for the seat, as if she were a brand-name healthcare organization or an academic medical center that assumes its name and reputation will make up for doctors who abuse everyone around them or a poor patient experience. Dismissing your competitors just because they're smaller than you is a mistake—it just opens the door for the scrappy underdog. But perhaps the most important lesson is this: Just because you have a strong presence in your market doesn't mean that other hospitals can't steal some of your market share away.

For examples of how underdogs can compete against bigger, more famous competitors, check out this HealthLeaders magazine article, We're Number Two!

The disappearing act The major turning point in this race came when Coakley took a week off from campaigning. She came back to find Brown preparing to pass her. And she never caught up. Brown took advantage of her radio silence to run ads positioning himself as the candidate of the people and even compared himself—in one ad that's will certainly go down in political history—to Kennedy. Healthcare organizations make this mistake, too. They think that taking a hiatus from marketing will save them dollars. And that might be true … in the short term. Even if you scale back on advertising campaigns, you cannot just disappear from the landscape. Otherwise, here comes that scrappy underdog again.

See for yourself what happens when even a well-known healthcare organization steps out of the public eye in this article, Marketing: A New Name.

The knee-jerk reaction (emphasis on jerk)
So how did Coakley decide to make up for the week she lost to Brown? She went negative. Conventional wisdom says that while voters say they don't like negative ads, they still work. But anytime you sling mud, some of it will splash back on you. I doubt we've seen the end of attack ads, but in this case Coakley and her supporters came off as creeps and cranks.

For an example of how negative campaigns can backfire in the healthcare industry, read my column about two hospital CEOs in Florida who waged a communications war against each other: Nasty or Nice: How Do You Grow Market Share. You'll find more advice on the topic in the HealthLeaders magazine story, Marketing: The Fight Over Market Share Gets Nasty.

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