Over the past few weeks a case study of how to promote and market has emerged out of Dayton, Ohio. Perhaps, more importantly, the real life case study will show that discretion, sincerity, and a little common sense are the best ways to market services to an emotional public.
First, lets start with some background. In early 2009, thanks to social networking sites and some limited media coverage, people throughout the country began to articulate their frustration regarding their view of a fiscally irresponsible government, growing bureaucracies, inattentive and uncaring elected officials, and a feeling of individual freedoms encroached upon by those same officials and bureaucracies.
On February 19, 2009 Rick Santelli, during a live telecast on CNBC from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, criticized much of the government’s plan to refinance underwater mortgages and in his rant he hypothesized upon the creation of a Chicago Tea Party. Momentum grew and a common theme centered around taxes. On April 15, 2009 Tea Party protests were held around the country with hundreds of thousands of people attending rallies.
Over the course of the spring and summer of 2009 frustration within the electorate continued to simmer as U.S. Senators and Congressman mocked their constituents as an unpopular healthcare bill rode in the balance of a vote. Some Senators cancelled town hall meetings altogether, some selected favorable crowds, and others, like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, had e-town meetings over the internet where only favorable questions would be posed.
Off year elections in the fall of 2009 and special elections in the winter of 2010 emboldened the Tea Party movement as conservatives won races in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Some Tea Party members and conservatives even took solace in Pennsylvania’s Congressional District 12 outcome as the Democrat, Mark Critz, ran on an anti-Obama/Pelosi platform of pro-life and gun rights.
Within approximately one year the Tea Party movement had engulfed everyday America. Based on a New York Times/CBS poll, from early 2009 to the spring of 2010 the Tea Party had grown from nothing to a movement with almost 1 in 5 Americans identifying themselves as Tea Party supporters. Of the 18% of Americans who identified with the Tea Party 20 percent (4% of the general public) had either given money to or attended a Tea Party sponsored event. In an early spring poll, Rasmussen Reports found 52% of U.S. voters believed the average member of the Tea Party movement had a better understanding of the issues facing America than the average member of Congress. Additionally, the poll found 62% of Mainstream Americans believed the Tea Party was closer to their views. That’s an impressive growth rate–from nothing to millions of people sharing a cause in a little over one year.
And the growth continued. A poll conducted by USA Today/Gallup in May and June of 2010 found 3 out 10 voters nationwide considered themselves Tea Party backers. The numbers are little lower in the Midwest with 28% of voters considering themselves backers. All-in-all, very impressive growth with much of the interest garnered through local grassroot initiatives and social networking sites.
That’s not to say everyone in America has a positive view of the Tea Party and this is where the Dayton case study comes into play.
The Tea Party has it’s detractors–And they are vocal. Cable TV opinion programs in the evening will have guests routinely use a sexually vulgar term to describe an individual associated with the Tea Party. Sometimes the host joins in with the vulgar term or shares an outward laugh with the audience once the term is uttered. Newspapers with articles about or related to the Tea Party routinely have derogatory comments plastered in their comment section regarding people who express Tea Party views. Lastly, newspaper journalists tend to negatively slant their articles when writing about the Tea Party or affiliated individuals, thus stoking more derogatory comments from people who don’t accept dissenting views.
The Tea Party has become a lightening rod issue and many times the media loves to throw gas on the flames and be derisive as much as possible.
In early August the local Tea Party in Dayton publicly announced the Tea Party Exchange (TPX). The exchange, up and running since early summer, was modeled similarly to Kroger Plus Cards. It would allow consumers, by showing a Tea Party key ring, to receive 5% discounts from participating merchants and for a merchant to participate an annual $150 membership fee would need to be paid directly to the Dayton Tea Party. The membership fee would be used to offset the cost and administration of running the TPX website. The stated mission was “to allow consumers find local merchants that support the ideals of free enterprise and preserving America.”
Approximately a couple dozen merchants initially signed up for the program. HVAC (heating and air conditioning) firms signed on as did some graphic artists, dry cleaners, CPA’s and tax accountants, a dentist, repair, remolding and roofing contractors, along with a pub or two, and a multi-brand luxury car dealer.
The local paper picked up on TPX’s major press release announcing the venture and within days all hell had broken loose. The Dayton paper couldn’t send reporters out fast enough to find someone offended by such a marketing ploy. Multiple stories appeared online how offended people printed out the list to hang on their refrigerator, so they could avoid doing business with those firms, or how they were going to call the participating merchant stating they would no longer require their services. Meanwhile, in the comment section below the article, vitriol comments continued unabated.
After a few days it appeared the storm had passed with not too much damage. That was until a local blogger astutely noticed the TPX web page had been outsourced to India. That went over like a lead balloon with pretty much everyone, including supporters of the local Tea Party. And, it was the straw that broke the camels back on the TPX exchange. It has been shut down.
The Dayton TPX was to be a pilot program–If it worked it would have been rolled out to other cities nationwide. It still may. For small businesses it may have been, or may still become, a way to promote and expand business with like minded people.
The local paper failed to edify its base the TPX is not unique. There are literally thousands of business associations where the consumer and an affiliated company are free to enter into transactions based on a shared interest. For instance, the Christian Blue Pages, located in Dayton, has downloadable coupons for like minded people. Yet, the local Cox affiliate hasn’t sent out reporters scurrying around to find a Muslim, Jew, or atheist out on the street that is offended by that marketing effort. Nor have they published a list of participating companies to potentially boycott because of their religious beliefs.
Based on the recent growth and the number of people who identify themselves with the Tea Party an Exchange is probably a viable platform to link like minded individuals together, benefiting parties on each side of the transaction. However, knowing how the media loves to fan the flames it would behoove the TPX and participating businesses to initially assume low profiles, forget the big press release splash, be subtle in advertising membership, live up to the word of supporting local businesses, and for crying out loud don’t outsource to India.