SosAppl 06-9-148      


How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community


Douglas B. Sosnik, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier

Simon & Schuster, 2006, 260 pp.  ISBN 0-7432-8718-5



How did Clinton and Bush both get reelected when their popularity ratings were so low?  They connected at an emotional level with values important to Americans.  They communicated to target audiences selected by their lifestyles, what the authors call “LifeTargeting.”  Sosnik was a senior advisor for policy and strategy for President Clinton.  Dowd was chief campaign strategist for President Bush in 2004.  Fournier is a former chief political writer for The Associated Press.


The authors have undertaken “to discover the strategies and characteristics that help political, business, and religious leaders succeed.” (Author’s Note) 



“What is Applebee’s America?  The answer is that it’s…a town, a neighborhood, a job, an Internet site, a church or club or cause, a place of business, or any place that evokes a sense of community, a feeling that I belong here.  It is your way of life.” (ix)


Many interviews leading to the results of this book were conducted at Applebee’s, the ubiquitous restaurant chain catering to middle-class families in the nation’s fast-growing exurbs.  It was an excellent setting to connect with the American community. (ix) 


“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Eric Hoffer, p. 1)


“Whether your product is a candidate, a hamburger, or the word of God, the challenge is the same: How do you connect with a fast-changing public and get them to buy what you’re selling?” (2)


“Americans are making seismic changes in the ways they live, work, and play—and those choices ultimately determine how they vote, what they buy, and how they spend their Sunday mornings.  People are adjusting their lifestyles for many reasons, chief among them their insatiable hunger for community, connection, and a higher purpose in life.” (2)


The “Great Connectors” are able to “touch people at a gut level by projecting basic American values that seem lacking in today’s leaders and missing from the day-to-day experiences of life—among them: empathy and optimism; strength and decisiveness; authenticity, faith, and a sense of community, belonging, and purpose.” (2) 


“Values are what Americans want to see in a candidate, corporation, or church before they’re even willing to consider their policies and products.  The choices people make about politics, consumer goods, and religion are driven by emotions rather than by intellect.’ (2) The authors call these “Gut Values Connections.”


“Gut Values Connections don’t just happen.  They are built.” (3)  Here’s how:

1.      They adapt to a changing public in ways others do not. 

2.      They find and target their audiences through “strategies that predict voting/buying/church habits based on people’s lifestyle choices.”

3.      They use many communications channels and technologies, especially word of mouth. (3)


“The ‘Me Generation’ has given way to the era of ‘us.’” (4)  People crave community.  They want to belong.  “Americans are turning to people they know for advice and direction.  We call these new opinion leaders Navigators: they’re otherwise average Americans who help their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers navigate the swift currents of change.”  “…word-of-mouth communication is the most credible and efficient way to transmit a message.” (5)


POLITICS: Values Trump the Economy

[Politics is the strongest section of the book because this is where the authors have the most experience.  Dlm]


“…tactics do not win elections.  Gut Values do.  Cutting-edge strategies are useful only when they help a candidate make his or her values resonate with the public.” (13)  “…policies and issues are mere prisms through which voters take the true measure of a candidate: Does he share my values?”  “Today, two Gut Values dominate the political landscape…community and authenticity.” (14)


“Americans don’t expect their leaders to be perfect, but they want them to be perfectly frank: to acknowledge their mistakes, promise to fix the problem, and then actually fix it.” (15)


“President Clinton built community with his words.  He had a way of convincing people that they were all in this together….” (27)


Those who succeed use five processes. (30-54)

1.      Make and Maintain a Gut Values Connection.

2.      Adapt: The Bush team discovered the number of true independents, or swing voters, was declining.  So they began to target inactive or latent Republicans in Democratic areas.

3.      Target (LifeTarget): The Bush team accumulated an astounding amount of detailed lifestyle information on individuals that predicted with 80 to 90% certainly whether a person would vote Republican.  Then they conducted LifeTargeting campaigns in 16 critical states.

4.      Communicate:  The Bush campaign broadcast commercials on the programs (including cable networks) their latent voters watched as determined by Nielson surveys and other data. 

5.      Connect: The Iraq war was unpopular, but Bush played on the public fear of terrorism and their patriotism.  He made his position one of strong and principled leadership.  It made people trust him.  The team also developed a network of “Navigators,” or local influencers, for a word-of-mouth campaign including home parties that addressed by teleconference calls with President or Laura Bush.


“Once a Gut Value is lost, it’s almost impossible to get it back.” (57)


‘More than ever, Americans make their choices based on the recommendation or by the example of friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors.  They want to belong and be involved so badly….” (58)


“The old playbook is to never admit error or give ground to opponents.  The new rule is to be accountable….  It’s the era of spine, not spin.” (59)



BUSINESS: Selling Community

“The ability of Applebee’s or any other company to succeed in fast-changing times—to get people to vote with their wallets—hinges on its efforts to make and maintain Gut Values Connections.  Projecting a sense of community and purpose means more to Applebee’s bottom line than does the quality of its food.”  “We’re not in the food business serving people.  We’re in the people business serving food.” (quoting Hill, Applebee’s CEO, 63)


“For Hill, the purpose…is to create a culture of community at Applebee’s.”  Particularly in the exurban areas “…there is a huge market for community.  Virtually everybody is new and a stranger.” (63)  “Any company worth its salt tries to forge a Gut Values Connection.”  A growing number of companies are expressing faith.  It’s a way to say they show your values, that we respect you.  (64)


“We had a mantra: get close to the guests, and they will tell you what you need to know.  But what I learned is that you have to also get close to the people who are not your guests and find out about those people who tried you and didn’t like you.” (quoting Hill, 70)


Hill, talking to a corporate meeting of restaurant managers:

“If we’re going to get people to believe in our vision and if we’re going to engage them, we have to genuinely care for them.  You have to make one of the most difficult investments you’ll ever be asked to make.  It’s not a financial investment, it’s an emotional investment.  You’ve got to make an emotional investment in people, make an emotional connection with them.  You’ve got to create a positive, caring atmosphere in a restaurant that people can’t wait to get to and don’t want to leave.” (80)


“Technology plays a role, but it’s the people.  The better you can fully engage people, the better results you’ll get.”  (Hill, p. 84)


Applebee’s is in the business of community.  “Their task is to make Gut Values Connections with people who are hungry for belonging.” (84)  “All applicants are required to take a psychological test to determine whether they have the drive and personality to serve customers.” (85-6)  They hire great connectors.  They create the right atmosphere.  And they support community values.  (85-88)



RELIGION: A Cause Greater than Yourself

This section is based largely on observations and interviews ay three mega-churches: Saddleback, Willowcreek, and McLean Bible Church in Vienna, VA.  Megachurches are a $7.2 billion industry, largely in suburban and exurban areas. (94) 


“…megachurch leaders adapt to demographic and social change; they target potential worshipers based on their lifestyles; and they use multiple communication channels to deliver messages that are relevant to people’s lives.”  “More than most…[they] specialize in the mysterious art of word-of-mouth marketing….”  But “the key to any great church leader is his or her ability to speak to people’s hearts, not their heads.  They use those lifestyle-driven tactics to build and maintain Gut Value Connections based on two virtues: community and purpose.” (95) 


“The key is the church’s ‘small groups,’ or clubs, that divide massive congregations into cozy clusters of people with similar interests.” (95)


“The congregations are largely misunderstood and badly stereotyped by political and business strategists who, because of their prejudices, ignore or insult a major part of America.” (97)


“Megachurch leaders are as serious about business as they are about religion.  They’re savvy CEOs and lifestyle-based marketers pushing a high-concept product: eternal life.” (99)


A central point of the book:  “People and institutions that embrace change tend to succeed….  Those who ignore the whims of their customers or scoff at the public’s shifting lifestyles and values lose ground to their competition.” (100)


“Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard called it [The Purpose-Driven Church] ‘the best book on entrepreneurship, business, and investment.’” (103)  “He [Rick Warren] found the fastest-growing area in the nation’s fastest-growing county, figured out what the people craved, and found a way to give it to them—in church, and in the name of God.” (104)


Warren’s targets at Saddleback were baby-boomer, unchurched, white-collar couples.  He even had a name for them—‘Saddleback Sam and Samantha’—personalizing his target….  Warren can describe Saddleback Sam down to the tiniest details: a wife, two kids, massive debt,….” (107)


“LifeTargeting, a new concept in politics, has been used to help churches grow for at least a dozen years.” (111)


Quoting Lon Solomon, senior pastor of McLean Bible Church, “Normally we say, ‘Here’s what the Bible says.  Here’s what it means and what it means for your life.’  In a postmodern service, we do it the opposite way, because [young adults] value their own experience so highly.  We do it like this: ‘Here is a truism from your life.  Here is a biblical proposition it illustrates, and here’s the biblical truth behind it.’” (112)


“Solomon quickly added that he uses polling and focus groups to learn how to communicate the Lord’s word, not to shape His word.  ‘That’s the danger.  Do we allow that information to shape our message?  It would be like a politician staking out his position on polls.  To me, that’s wrong.” (113)


“People are not looking for a friendly church as much as they are looking for friends.” (Warren, 118)


“Megachurches rival Disney World for fun, games, and profit.” (122) 


“Despite this remarkable record of success, the megachurch as we know it must adapt if the evangelical movement is to keep pace with a fast-changing society.” (123)


Part II  Great Change

Anxious Americans.  There is a perception that things aren’t quite right and nostalgia for simpler times.  They are increasingly looking to themselves, not government for an answer, coming together in community, desiring civic engagement and personal connections.  Self-organizing groups are making things happen.  A fresh spirit of engagement is emerging.  The number of volunteers is increasing, especially among younger Americans.  The internet can nurture old relationships and create new ones.  A great number entrepreneurs and civic and church groups jumped into the breach to help with Katina relief, exhibiting new levels of ingenuity and generosity.  Instant communities were formed.  Blogs create a virtual community that can no longer be ignored by the media.


The application for leaders is that “the best way to talk to customers or voters is the oldest, word-of-mouth communication via a social network.  “Whether online or offline, a community gives companies a word-of-mouth communications channel that is more credible than their TV ads….”  (177)


Navigators.  In spite of the glut of information, Americans are actually more dependent on people they know and trust to guide them.  Trust is a key word. “A Navigator is anybody who influences an opinion in peer-to-peer conversation.”  If you urge your brother to vote, you’re a Navigator.  (181)  Small group leaders at Megachurches are Navigators.  As many as 80% of Christians say they came to Christ or the church through a friend or family member. (196)


“In times of change, people naturally seek a guide, someone who’s been out ahead of them….”  (195, quoting The Influentials by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, upon which this chapter builds.)


We need to take our case directly to consumers.  They are in control.  Today’s opinion leaders work on the grassroots level.  Opinion leaders are trusted people who know lots of average Americans with large social networks.  (187)


Americans on the Move.  There is a great migration.  Everyone is moving out and up.  “Lifestyle choices… determine how they vote, what they buy, and where they go to church.” (199)  Why do they move?  Because they can. (202) 


“Churches that are changing to meet the needs of Americans are thriving.  Those caught in the past are struggling.  People are willing to drive as much as an hour, zipping past their old church, to get a better deal on Sunday, often at an exurban megachurch.” (217)


Generation 9/11.  Political, business, and religious leaders “need to be reminded that the road to success in politics, products, and pews is to build authentic relationships with the people they serve.”  “The Great Connectors start by adapting.”  “The Great Connectors use new technologies and information to build lifestyle profiles that helped them find and persuade the public.” (218-19) 


“Two Gut Values have emerged as the most important from today forward: authenticity and community.” (220)


Americans are brand-conscious.  They don’t buy to make a statement about status but to be part of a community, to make a statement about their values. (227)


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