What makes Pete Buttigieg such an effective communicator?

The biggest surprise of the 2020 presidential campaign so far has been the rise of South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg from relative unknown to contender. People who hear him speak tend to come away impressed, and there are many possible reasons for this, including the fact that he just seems like a decent human being, which offers a refreshing contrast to the current president.

Mayor Pete also seems to have an intuitive grasp of effective framing, which means that he is good at describing ideas in a way that makes listeners agree with him. I am a cognitive scientist who studies the importance of framing in political discourse. In my new book, America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation, I discuss framing techniques that liberal politicians could use to make their policy proposals more palatable to conservative voters.

The first technique was pioneered by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley who has published several excellent books arguing that the language used by politicians and pundits to describe policies plays a fundamental role in determining how those policies are perceived by people—because of the way that language activates the mind.

In other words, the way in which a policy is framed could induce agreeable or disagreeable mind states.

Lakoff believes that the popularity of the conservative worldview in contemporary America is due to the fact that conservatives are better framers than liberals. He believes that many people have biconceptual minds, meaning that they are capable of understanding both liberal and conservative value systems. However, the inner liberals of many biconceptual citizens have gone dormant and need to be reawakened—by consistent and persistent use of liberal frames by liberal politicians.

In America the Fair, I express skepticism about Lakoff’s technique and suggest that liberal frames do not work well on conservative minds. A more promising approach, pioneered by Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Robb Willer of Stanford University, recognizes that conservative minds are much more likely to be persuaded by arguments that are consistent with conservative morality. For example, environmental protections can be framed to conservatives as maintaining purity, and to liberals as protecting the defenseless.

This brings us back to Mayor Pete, who seems to understand conservative morality way better than most liberals. More impressively, he talks about liberal ideals using conservative language.

MEEGANThe most newsworthy example is the way he talks about his experience as a gay man. To conservative Christians who think that homosexuality is a choice, he challenges them using their language: “If you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” About his marriage to his husband, Chasten, he says it has moved him “closer to God.”

Some of Buttigieg’s competitors for the Democratic nomination have proposed that college should be free to anyone who wants it. When he was asked recently about free college, he replied, “Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t. As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidize a minority who earn more because they did.”

Notice how clever this is? He identifies himself as a progressive while using language that is reassuring to conservatives. When Mayor Pete talks about liberal ideas using conservative language, it rubs people the right way.


Daniel Meegan is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph, and the author of America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation. 
You can view and purchase his book, here.

UPCOMING EVENTS

May 1st, 2019 at 7pm: Book Launch with Daniel Meegan: America the Fair

 

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What makes Pete Buttigieg such an effective communicator?

The difference between good and bad marketing

A couple of weeks ago, news broke of the Build-a-Bear mess. (Build a Bear offered customers a chance to pay in dollars whatever the age of their child was. The outcome was chaos and madness and thousands of people lining up to try and take advantage of the promo.) My wife texted me to share a story and commented that the “pay-your-age” tactic was similar to our #PWYW sale, but didn’t seem to be going quite so successfully! One day later, Chuck E. Cheese offered a similar incentive. (For the price of a child’s age, the child could play as many games as they wanted for thirty minutes.) I’m not directly comparing our #PWYW sale because circumstances are different in each case, but there do seem to be connections and things we can take from all three campaigns.

What’s the difference between good and bad marketing? Sometimes, it’s a really thin margin of error. When I read about Build-a-Bear and then Chuck E. Cheese and thought about #PWYW, it struck me how easily each of these examples could have gone differently. With a little more careful planning and a timely reaction, Build-a-Bear could have been the talk of the town with a smart, adventurous marketing campaign. Instead, they quickly became a case study in how not to handle unanticipated demand. Chuck E. Cheese barely caught any flak at all because of the timing of their much-more-limited pay-what-you-age campaign. At CUP, we rode a wave far bigger than expected, but we managed to keep our balance the whole way into the beach.

We can all learn lessons, though, even for something so different from young kids making the teddy bear of their dream as publishing scholarly books for academics and libraries. No matter the original scope or intention, customers love an insanely good deal. For parents, the opportunity to get a $30+ bear for less than $5 was too good to miss. For grad students, our offer to pay whatever they wanted for books that often run upwards of $50, made heads turn. Upset children who had missed out on a bear quickly found solace in Chuck E. Cheese’s timely offer. A bargain (especially a timely one) is going to draw customers in.

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I’ve already written about it and won’t pretend that we foresaw the size of that wave coming, but we made sure to react quickly and courteously, when we did realize we’d found ourselves on a monster off the coast of Portugal. When you’re reacting in real time to demand beyond your expectations you aren’t going to get everything right; but basic, sound principles of customer service and sales are going to keep your head above water. Sadly, Build-a-Bear just didn’t use tried and true customer service skills when this happened. Trying to placate irate parents contending with upset toddlers and young children with a gift voucher that didn’t even amount to the same price struck me as a recipe for disaster. The ingredients: bad PR, poor customer relations, and lost sales. When we couldn’t immediately cope with the demand during #PWYW, we sent every individual who emailed us a polite apology for the delay, promised we would address their offer even though the window for PWYW was ending, and then, as quickly as we could, responded with the same protocols we’d used on the actual day of the sale. In other words, we treated each person like a valuable customer, and offered them the same deal they would have got if the demand hadn’t been more than we could handle.

In marketing, there’s always something we could have done better, an outcome no one quite anticipated. But as book marketing becomes more dynamic, more content driven, more necessarily creative and non-traditional, these kinds of campaigns are going to feature more often. We’ll need to be on our toes and ready to handle a “crisis” as it happens rather than take the slow approach that tends to have accompanied much of what we have all done in the past. When customer reaction and interaction happens in real time, and is broadcast and shared in the same way, it’s our responsibility as forward-thinking marketers to react and interact in the same way. We must reflect on our customers, know them, think like them, and provide them with the brand experience they wish for, not the one we could simply afford.

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About the author of this blog post: Martyn Beeny is Marketing and Sales Director at Cornell University Press. He thought about trying the pay-your-age deal at Build-a-Bear, but you know, math. You can follow him on Twitter, @MartynBeeny

The difference between good and bad marketing