How Content Can Make You the President of a Country: The Case of Ukraine
After the election, it is clear that if a business wants to win the attention and trust of customers, it must follow in the footsteps of Zelensky's campaign team, Ze! Team. But what techniques did the President use during the election campaign, and how can we apply them to modern marketing?
Old-fashioned mechanical increasing of brand presence in digital channels is not enough anymore. Even further, it requires content to always be relevant and engaging for a target audience. In this article, we summarize the techniques and approaches used by Zelensky's team to guarantee one of the biggest political upsets in Ukraine's short history as a nation, and trust us... there have been a fair few.
1. Content is king
Zelensky is not a career politician like his electoral rivals. Quite the opposite in fact — he was a comedian and entertainer, albeit a very famous one. But with the help of clever content, he positioned himself as the man of the people that Ukraine needs.
Zelensky caught the mood of voters not just with simple campaign slogans, but with an explanation of the man behind them. We learnt what kind of person he is, what values he holds close to his heart, and what expertise he has to drive a country. It is important to remember: in Summer 2018, six months before Zelensky announced that he was going to the polls, only 8% of Ukrainians were ready to vote for him. When the counting had finished on the second round of the election, he held a huge 73% of Ukrainians' trust.
But to create that trust and form the image of an honest, patriotic politician was only possible thanks to his content. Zelensky's whole career has always been based upon the content that he put out, and the fact that he was so successful even before this electoral campaign proves that he knew what he was doing. His starring role in the Servant of the People series, a Ukrainian satirical television series watched by half of Ukrainians, and regular appearances on Kvartal 95 performances — the well-known and beloved all around Ukraine shows, gave him the foundations of a campaign on which he built on through his YouTube and Instagram.
Poster of the Series where Zelensky stared the role of an ordinary people's guy who rides a bicycle to the president's office
Although Zelensky did not show knowledge of the economy, he was able to use his skills as a creative to paint a narrative of the current political system. He used artistic demonstrations of the process of corruption and abuse of power and aimed droll jibes at specific politicians throughout his television career.
He acted in a TV series that was the perfect example of educational content told through a storytelling format. The expertise that so eloquently and hilariously manifested through the series aroused confidence in him as a presidential candidate. Volodymyr Zelensky had managed to explain Ukrainian politics better than any MP or president for 28 years.
What does it mean for a marketer?
Content marketing works by giving the audience knowledge, and building a brand in the image of an expert and only after that can trust be won.
Modern marketing is the art of attracting attention and building a brand with creativity applied through technology. Content is the blood feeding the organs of a business. A business with the ambition to become a market leader should build their content marketing strategy before their product strategy. Nowadays, it is content that creates the ability to engage and, more importantly, to hold the attention of an audience. It also allows businesses to interact with customers at every stage of their journey.
2. Content should be about the interests of the audience, not the business'
Humans are self-centred by nature, and they are of course most interested about the things that are closest to them — their health, their money, and their families and friends. Yulia Tymoshenko, one of Zelensky's main rivals, released a video which raised hell on the government's constant raising of gas prices. Although it was manipulative, it went viral and has racked up 3.6 million views to date. On the contrary, only 27,000 people watched a short biopic about her life despite it being uploaded to the same official YouTube channel. The latter was deemed irrelevant and pretentious.
Meanwhile, Zelensky was reaping 1.5 million views over a few days from a simple video recorded behind the wheel of a car. In the video, he spoke about what politics means for the average person, speaking on a personal level about what it's like for a normal guy to run for the highest office in the country, telling us what time he wakes up every day, and even disclosing what his wife is worried about. He gave his audience an honest gauge of his mood every day, broadcasting it across various platforms to bring him closer to them.
Since the launch of Servant of the People in 2015, Zelensky had prepared a mass of content based on the problems that come with power — something very close to Ukrainian voter hearts. During the campaign, his two main opponents were primarily concerned with sullying each other. Zelensky, though, was a dark horse and spoke about the problem with traditional Ukrainian politicians — corruption and nepotism. With this being his maiden voyage into politics, he could not be castigated for these mispractices like Poroshenko and Tymoshenko.
Vecherniy Kvartal, another tremendously popular show amongst Ukrainians, was also centred around those same problems but addressed them with humour rather than hatred. If you didn't know that the series "Servant of the People" was a sitcom, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a documentary based on Zelensky's rise to power. This series was the first media project to explain common corruption in the language of voters. It is devoted to satirising the problems of modern Ukraine: cowboy politicians, corruption, social injustices etc.
The most honest moments came during Holoborodko's, Zelensky's character, daydreams. His mind would wander to violent scenes of pulling out a gun to shoot bickering MPs or to cutting off their thieving hands. This metaphor struck a chord with the Ukrainians who were fed up with the political class. The new president has been sculpting his image as a politician of the people for a long time even if he hadn't intended to do so at first.
Don't mess with the president: the Servant of the People Season 2 official teaser
This is an international phenomenon and is happening all over the world. In the parliamentary election for the United Kingdom in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn demolished Theresa May's majority so she was forced to form a wobbly coalition with the DUP. Corbyn's success was largely down to his campaign aimed at pushing more inner city youth to the ballot box. While May was on mainstream television outlining that the naughtiest thing she had ever done was run through a field of wheat, Jeremy Corbyn was interviewing underground music stars who eventually started the #Grime4Corbyn movement. It worked, as the under-45s came out in force for Labour.
What does it mean for a marketer?
To gain the attention of your audience, it's better to know and talk about what they are interested in, rather than just talking about your brand. For example, an interview with the CEO of a company is not good content, unless they are at least four times more interesting than the rest of the world's CEOs. The best way to convey the value, spirit, and history of your brand is to create interesting content that reflects those spirits and values.
3. Good content takes time to prepare
Early on in Zelensky's campaign, many of his videos were recorded on the knee — shot by the man himself, in selfie mode, and apparently made up on the spot. However, things changed after the first round of the presidential elections with Zelensky's electrifying video response to a debate call from Poroshenko.
At first, many thought that Zelensky was hiding because he still had not immediately answered Poroshenko's debate invitation. He was, in fact, crafting the perfect video response. The exhilarating video took time to prepare, and was a spine-tinglingly direct response to Poroshenko's challenge. It was relevant because it was what the whole country had been waiting for, but at the same time it was so unexpected. The video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and was broadcast on news outlets across the world. It was so effective that it allowed Zelensky to confidently break away from Poroshenko in the election race and assert a new psychological leadership. It was time for Poroshenko to take him seriously.
On the other hand, it can't be said that Poroshenko's team didn't at least try to create engaging content. His team created an online, in-browser game with Poroshenko as the main character making a dash towards some sort of EU finishing paradise. It's thinking outside the box, but the game itself was clearly made in a hurry with its primitive plot and buggy mechanics. All-in-all, a pretty pointless and strange piece of content.
However, the subject of gaming can successfully be used as a campaigning tool. Sim Sang-Jung's bootleg Overwatch edit of her hitting home some political truths went viral during the South Korean presidential campaign. Young heads were turned because it was something they recognised and could relate to.
Political battle with Overwatch interface: watch the full version
What does it mean for a marketer?
A good content strategy focuses on two types of content: creative, patterned content — churned out quickly and regularly and more original content that takes longer to create. The latter involves taking a good idea and working on it over time to achieve a more authentic product — blog posts, videos, or infographics.
4. Content must be genuine, in the language of the audience
Vladimir Zelensky got his communication style right from the get go, and continued to say and do things that broke the mould of career politicians before him. During the inauguration he quoted his six-year-old son and emphatically stated that every Ukrainian is the President. After the inauguration, he became the first Ukrainian president to use presentation slides to complement a speech.
Elsewhere, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez perfected her campaign tone as she ousted the incumbent Joseph Crawley in New York's congressional primary. A former bartender, Cortez considers herself to be very much a person of the people. When her opposition attempted to invalidate her by virilizing a video of her dancing in her university days, she simply posted a video response with the overall theme — "dancing is pretty normal, you know". On top of that, she regularly hosts popular Instagram live cook-a-longs where her followers get the chance to ask her questions directly whilst she cooks her dinner. The format of the broadcast is hugely informal; Ocasio-Cortez enjoys gossiping with her viewers in her pyjamas.
Rock Star Alexandra: Giphy
What does it mean for a marketer?
Across digital channels, viewers expect to see genuine and sincere content. Pathos can still be broadcast on TV, but even there it will be less effective than words spoken in the viewer's language. Across digital channels, on the other hand, pathos is often considered repulsive and invasive.
If someone is trying to persuade a large number of people to take action on something, it's important they remain down to earth and speak so their audience understands them. That is, no matter who is speaking; be it a president or a business. Humdrum product descriptions, banal Facebook posts, pathetic press releases, and other unoriginal advertising simply don't work.
5. Content distribution is as important as its preparation
Traditional politicians hoped to win over voters through television, simply because this is all they know. Zelensky communicated with his audience through YouTube, Instagram, and Messenger. In fact, despite being one of the most recognised television personalities in Ukraine, he did not really appear on television as a candidate. He stuck to more modern social media platforming and on television, he was only ever introduced as a showman and presenter. Even on the TV channel "1 + 1" on which he made his name, Zelensky only appeared as a presidential candidate at the end of the election campaign.
The Team of Zelensky ran the largest digital campaign in Ukrainian history with more than 1,000 targeted ad campaigns on Facebook, 18 million emails sent, 2000 informal communities established, and over 120,000 emails received. These are the kinds of numbers that would get any marketer and PR expert hot under the collar. The fantastic reach and engagement achieved by Ze! Team brought a vibrant politician's image to everybody's private screens.
What does it mean for a marketer?
Brands can create great content in the language of their audience, but that's only half the battle. After creating it, it is just as important to market that content to make sure that the right people see it — otherwise it is just wasted money, resources, and ideas. A campaign can only be considered successful when the right audience has received the right message.
6. You are the media. Your own audience is worth its weight in gold
Politicians can spend huge amounts of money on traditional approaches to campaigning — party conventions, whimsical videos amongst fields of wheat, bot armies, and teams of bloggers and influencers. However, modern brands should realise that their audience is themselves, their employees, and their customers. It is essential to create content that can be enthusiastically distributed and shared within a targeted audience.
Zelensky gathered his audience, through television, long before the election. However, during the campaign he expressed his opinion through Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook. His huge audience and cult status allowed him to communicate directly with millions of people at the click of a button. The total number of subscribers on all of his channels had reached 1,200,000 by March 2019. As well as viewing the content, people were sharing the content to their own followers. It grew exponentially.
Like him or loathe him, Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign is an example of how successful a targeted sharing campaign can be. His team targeted voters based on their social media profiles and it is claimed that at one point they had acquired around four thousand data points on every individual in the USA. Team Trump took this information to base their Facebook ad campaigns on voters' fears, lusts, and habits. The pinpoint relevance of these ads meant that they were easily shareable amongst social circles, especially in the vast rural heartland of America, and Trump eventually came out on top.
Now, Trump fires out dozens of tweets every day before most of us have had time for a cup of coffee. Sometimes they are attacks on his political opponents, often they are nothing short of nonsense. The point is that Trump uses Twitter to its full potential, and can bypass traditional "fake news" media filters to speak directly to 63 million followers. This is a new approach to politics called Twitter diplomacy. Zelensky will probably use a similar approach, based on what we know from his election campaigns.
What does this mean for a marketer?
Having a round-the-clock audience is a valuable asset to any modern business. It provides the opportunity to reach millions of people directly without having to organize expensive press conferences, and without having to deal with pesky journalists. It's a credit to how far technology has come that millions of people can get the message with a few simple taps.
Digital media can transform a business into a troubleshooting service for customer questions, broadcasting expertise in real-time to huge audiences. But, to create your own audience on a national level, you need interesting content... and a lot of it. Of course, this part takes time, creativity and effective content operations.
7. Formulating and communicating a position is more important than sullying competitors
There are a lot of negative aspects to Ukrainian politics. To many Ukrainians, passing comment on those aspects is a waste of time. Many politicians are still driven by placing discerning headlines in the tabloid press and dealing with their competition in other dishonest ways, repulsing the thinking part of society whilst the "unthinking" part lap it up. The thing is, more and more people nowadays are thinking. Social media gives everybody a voice and so it is far more important to create useful content about issues that bother people.
Going after your opponents is the dirtiest and oldest trick in the book. When it works, it works. When it doesn't work, you can be sorry. Donald Trump constantly attacks his political opponents and gets millions of retweets, shares, and likes. During his election campaign he nicknamed "Crooked" Hillary Clinton, which stuck. Clinton, on the other hand, had to record a video apology for naming Trump"s followers as "deplorables".
What does it mean for a marketer?
In today's information space, the president of a country needs to demonstrate their personal opinion and give an explanation on current events, express opinions, and give explanations. Like Nike did with Colin Kaepernick and Raheem Sterling when they addressed the issue of racism in sport, brands who are not afraid to speak about topics of public concern can clearly demonstrate their values to audiences. This position may alienate a small portion of potential buyers, but will lead many to increased exposure upon those who share those same values.
8. Anything is possible
A comedian being inaugurated as president of the largest country in Europe seems laughable, but it happened. Zelensky's victory proved that content can be used to reject all the frameworks and stereotypes that we thought we knew. If a business is creative, anything is possible. There's no reason for a brand not to rule its market. There's nothing to hide behind when entering global markets. There's no excuses not to launch a particularly unusual product.
If there was a category for 'most impressive marketing performance' at the Content Marketing Awards Zelensky would win it, hands down.
Against all the odds, the television programmes, all the Instagram posts, and the heaps of YouTube videos helped Zelensky to become the sixth President of Ukraine. Publicists and marketers have come to the conclusion that it was mostly down to his competent work with digital media, particularly his targeted advertising at narrow groups of voters with topics that were close to home. Social media is a tool; a hammer used to hammer home nails of emotionally relevant content. However, by itself it cannot achieve the explosive results that Zelensky found. The best advertising campaigns ignite a fire, launching content into the information stratosphere. The best content resonates long after the advertising campaign has ended. One of the largest brands in the world, Coca-Cola, do this to great effect — so why aren't some brands getting the idea?
All marketing techniques that are not able to sustain the attention of the audience simply do not work. Advertising can only attract attention, but only content can hold attention and eventually convert it to sales.
Dozens of businesses have already put content at the centre of their marketing strategy. Even with smaller companies, like car garages, it is becoming more common to have a blog. After the victory of Zelensky, even for those who most doubted whether it was worth it to invest in content, it is more obvious than ever... if you want to have a successful business, you need to regularly capture audience imaginations with tailor-made, spellbinding, and pertinent content.