09/06/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Wanna Be President? Learn How to Sell Cornflakes

If political parties studied the basic marketing principles behind selling a box of cornflakes, chances are they (and the millions of us forced to watch them flounder with less functional approaches) would be a lot better off.

A customer-centric, not brand-centric, philosophy is key to a product's ultimate success. Ignoring the buyer when building a brand is like hosting a sand castle contest in the middle of a hurricane. Sure you can try it, but why waste your time? Customers are more important than whatever it is you're selling. If they don't buy your product, your product is worthless.

Here are a few cornflake pointers for the political strategists among us:

Think about the customer first, the message(s) that will engage to him/her second, and your brand third.

What are the customer's wants, needs and desires, and what can you say to convince him/her that your brand delivers on those wants, needs and desires better than any other product on the shelf?

In marketing (although too many of us don't want to admit it), the brand we build doesn't matter most. If the shopper pushing the cart down the cereal aisle doesn't believe what you have to say about your cornflakes is compelling to her personally, it doesn't matter how innovative the packaging or sizzling the ad campaign. If the product doesn't sell, we have failed. Marketers must build an emotional bridge to the consumer in order to make the cash register ring.

Sculpt your brand message based on an objective, intimate understanding of your audience.

Let's say you're going after a female audience, ages 18-39. Research what communication points resonate most with the demographic, realizing these points might not be the message you or your investors might find personally appealing or interesting. (You're in the business of selling her cornflakes, not talking to yourselves anyway, right?)

In order to find the right strategies to reach her, you'll need to cultivate a dynamic, intimate understanding of the life your customer leads. She is not skipping merrily into the cornflake aisle of politics, patiently waiting with baited breath to be wowed by your brand. Chances are, she's got a million other things on her mind besides cereal. You'll need to convince her that you understand her life and that of her family, and communicate why you are the best choice.

Cast the WIDEST net possible.

If you want to sell to the majority of consumers, make sure your message appeals to the majority of consumers. If you only need to sell a handful of boxes to a small group of people to achieve all of your objectives (I don't know of any political products that fit in this category), you can certainly be highly selective in your messaging. "Mass appeal", however, is based in inclusion not exclusion. Which brings me to the next point...

Build an all-inclusive brand strategy.

The alienation (or partial and/or qualified acceptance) of any group of shoppers in hopes of endearing a brand to a seemingly more important audience is unnecessary and can prove brand damaging. Dr. Pepper Ten tried to build a brand around the idea that the product was "not for women" in hopes of delivering more men to the soda. The campaign received considerable backlash from female shoppers, who happen to be the gender that typically pushes the cart down the non-alcoholic beverage aisle. The alienation of any group to try to deliver another is wasted effort. Irish Spring showed us you can be "manly yes," but female friendly as well, thus successfully growing its product reach.

Tell the truth.

If you product isn't good enough to sell in its present form, reformulate. If you have to lie about the competition to get an edge, consider why you feel your product is inferior. If you have to lie about or mislead consumers to "win" sales, have some self respect and get off the shelf.

When taking on the competition, be smart and tread lightly.

Prove to shoppers that your cornflakes are better, not simply that the other choices are bad. If you have 10 grams of protein to the other box's five, you have a unique and marketable story to tell. Attempting to become the shopper's choice by default or disparagement is a waste of time, money and effort.

Be led by buyers, not investors.

What brand manager alive would allow investors to dictate what was important to communicate about the cornflakes? If your job is to sell corn flakes, you need to sell cornflakes. And the best way to do that is to target your purchasing audience. Investors have financial might, but ultimately lack purchase power.

Steer clear of avoidable controversy.

In a bare-knuckled brawl, even the winner comes out bloody. Don't step in things that you can avoid. Chick-fil-A didn't need to enter into a holy war about marriage, but it did. Papa John's CEO made the supersized mistake of entering into the health care debate when he should have been selling pizzas.

Keep your eyes focused on how to reach the largest number of consumers to increase your sales. Any issue that distracts you from your main sales objectives erodes your message and your brand.

If politicians want voters to check their box, they need to get a bit smarter about telling voters what's in it for them.

Sarah O'Leary is a award-winning creative marketer and author of the critically acclaimed book, "Brandwashed: Why the Shopper Matters More than What You're Selling."