A Marketer’s Take on Civic Engagement

If you work in corporate America, it probably hasn’t been long since you heard someone drop the buzz words of “blue ocean” and “red ocean” into one of your strategy sessions. That concept occurred to me this week as I was walking into the city library in the suburban Austin town where I live, to vote early in our municipal elections.

There were three candidates on the ballot for city council, one of whom was unopposed. Given that I was the only person at the voting location, it took me all of about 90 seconds to get in, vote and get on my way. That was not the experience I had voting in the general election in November, when it seemed like every resident in my city was there at city hall with me. And yet, I venture to say the vote I cast in that windowless room at the library was far more impactful than the one I did in November, because it was in the blue ocean.

Confused? Stick with me here…

I’m a marketer. That means I spend most of my days trying to get people to pay attention to the companies, products, issues and causes of my clients. The crux of the blue ocean strategy is that you shouldn’t waste your time playing in the “red ocean,” which is red with the blood of competition because it’s filled with those offering similar products to yours, driving down prices and narrowing profits. Instead, swim for the “blue ocean,” where competition is scarce and demand for your offering is strong, because you’ve created it in a way that is unique and compelling, allowing you to charge more and maximize profit. So what does this have to do with elections?

The Ultimate Marketplace

Elections are the ultimate marketplace. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that Wall Street is the place where fortunes are made and lost, since with the stroke of a pen, your elected officials could change all the rules that govern that bastion of capitalism. Closer to home, they make most of the rules the dictate your ability to live, work and play in your community. Want to go to your local coffee shop? Guess who approves their permits to operate. Want to buy a home? Guess who decides what property taxes you pay. Need roads to get to and from work? Guess who designs and funds those projects.

The impact of elected officials runs throughout every aspect of our lives, and the “red ocean” of politics is the Presidential Election Year. It’s the only time the vast majority of us pay any attention to whose filling those seats and making those decisions. And yet, in the same way you have limited ability to gain market share in a red ocean, your voice in a presidential election year is merely one among many. How about swimming to the blue ocean… off-year local elections?

Navigating the Open Waters

Do you know how many people show up to off-year local elections? Pretty much no one. According to a Portland State University study, less than 20 percent of registered voters show up for municipal elections in 15 of the country’s 30 largest cities, and here in Texas, our Lone Star is not shining bright. Of our four largest cities, Houston has the strongest turnout at 18 percent of registered voters, followed by Austin at 13 percent and San Antonio at 10 percent. Unfortunately, the Big D has some of the littlest figures, with both Dallas and Fort Worth hovering near 6 percent, among the lowest turnout in the country for local elections.

Depressing, right? Not necessarily... Not if you want to be the person making your voice heard. This is good news: it’s a blue ocean! We can look at these statistics and have predictable conversations about a population that lives in the echo chamber of their own social media feeds and how no one thinks with a long-term perspective anymore. Or we could do something about that by showing up this week.

If you have ideas for how you think things should be in your world, by all means, post to your social media feed and talk with your friends and neighbors, but please don’t bother to do any of those things if you’re not also going to do the one thing that can turn those opinions into outcomes: voting in your local elections. This Saturday, May 6, all over the great state of Texas, we’ll be electing mayors, city council members, school board officials and many others. Their meetings might not have the pizzazz of a presidential Twitter feed, but their conversations and decisions have a direct impact on your life as citizens, so it’s time to put on your swimsuit and head for blue waters.

Stacy Armijo is Executive Vice President for Pierpont Communications and a national Board Member for the American Marketing Association. She writes regularly about public relations, marketing, leadership and community engagement.