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Masks and marketing.

Back when I was a kid, you had to put a yard sign out front for people to know who you were voting for. Now everyone can tell simply by whether you’re wearing a mask or not. If you posted #blacklivesmatter on your social feeds. Or some other nuanced variation of a thousand things people see and hear you do — or don’t do — every day.

It may be jarring that issues which seem essentially nonpolitical, like responding to a global pandemic or ensuring racial equality, have become red meat for party voters. But it shouldn’t be surprising. 

Moral Foundations Theory

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have explored the connection between “moral foundations” and political beliefs for years. In short, we are talking past each other because of our foundational moral beliefs.

In his work, Haidt proposes six dimensions of moral foundation and convincingly relates them to the liberal/conservative dichotomy. If you’re interested, the six dimensions are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.

The upshot is that people bond with ideas based on our deeply entrenched attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. Said another way, the more an idea resonates with our values, the more likely we are to buy in — even if the idea has nothing to do with, say, a party platform at all. 

Political Issue Framing and Marketing

And politicians are masters at “framing” issues within an emotional and political context. They can make a decision to eat a chicken sandwich seem like a battle for personal liberty and the soul of our nation. Though it may feel crass to do so, let’s bring down the lights for a moment and talk about how these political messaging concepts apply to product positioning and messaging in the field of Work Tech.

When we vote for a political party we are buying a product. And that product is the party’s platform. (You can search for party platforms throughout history here.) [I can hear some of you thinking, “No … the politician is the product.” To which I respond, “Nope. The politician is just the pitch man.”]

Isn’t it strange that politicians rarely talk about platform issues anymore? No, it’s not strange at all. Because political strategists know that if a party can hook us by appealing to our attitudes, behaviors and beliefs (our moral foundations), we’ll buy the product even without knowing much about it. What is the platform of the democratic party in 2020? What is the platform for the republican party in 2020? Few can articulate either. 

Instead, we get our hackles up based on flashpoint issues that have nothing to do with party platforms. At first, we may not even know how to feel about or respond to something as significant as COVID-19 on a personal level. But watch enough FOX or MSNBC and we’ll know exactly how we are supposed to feel about it. (Go ahead and take a look at both sites. Do you think they know their target audiences? See any differences? News is just news, right? Facts and stuff…) Because when we buy into the worldview of a party, we keep buying whatever follow on product they are selling. So in many parts of the country, masks have become the equivalent of a big, fat campaign button. 

And what do masks have to do with party platforms anyway? Well if you ask many liberals, they will say it’s about caring for others and reducing harm. If you ask many conservatives, they will say it’s about personal liberty and limiting government oppression. 

And we all believe our version to our core.

So what does this have to do with product positioning and marketing in #WorkTech? Listen. People don’t buy facts. They buy opinions. And they only buy the opinions that line up with their core attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. Products are facts. Features are facts. But your view on the future of “work at home” or your stance on the value of traditional performance reviews is an opinion. The more you lead with your attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs — the more you emphasize your vision and your worldview — the more you will appeal to people who share similar values. And they are much more likely to become “radical buyers” and “promoter customers” than people who flat out see things differently than you. 

After we make the sell, we still have to deliver on the facts. But most of the time, we don’t get that opportunity because we can’t get prospects to engage with us in the first place. No matter how much awesomer that new feature is than the competition’s.

Polarized Messages for Radical Buyers

Am I saying that Work Tech companies should promote political messages? No. (I’m also not saying they shouldn’t.) I am saying that Work Tech companies should promote polarizing messages based on what they truly believe. Because if you believe in something, chances are there is a significant group of people out there who believe it, too, and will buy your product because of those shared beliefs.

Here are some polarizing positions in Work Tech:

  • Talent Management: “Humans are not capital.” (SumTotal from back in the day.) Shout out to Holly Rollo
  • Recognition: “Points and prizes are for clowns and circuses.” (Motivosity.) Shout out to Joe Staples.
  • Performance Management: “Performance reviews suck.” (Sonar6 from back in the day.) Shout out to Mike Carden.

I could go on and on. But the point is that powerful brands connect with people based on shared attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. Not features and benefits. Remember that most Work Tech companies are truly purpose-driven. We built our companies with a mission to make work better, make life better and make the world better. And we each have our own views about how that should happen. Don’t bury your beliefs in generic claims about features and benefits. 

It’s a polarized world, y’all. You can’t please everyone.

Burning all my Hawaiian shirts,


P.S. What do spiders do for work during COVID-19? Webinars.