Back in 1983, when Herman Miller Inc. marketing executive Peter Hoekstra prepared to launch a revolutionary office chair, he used focus groups of potential customers to test the ergonomic product. "People said it was the worst, ugliest chair they'd ever seen," recalls Hoekstra, now a Republican congressman from Michigan. But his design team--convinced that easy-to-use ergonomics would overcome bad looks--was undeterred. Today, the "Equa chair" is an industry best-seller and Herman Miller's most successful product.
Now the 41-year-old University of Michigan MBA has been handed what is arguably the ugliest political task of 1995: designing a strategy to sell the public on massive spending cuts needed to finance the Republicans' promised tax cuts and balanced budget. Hoekstra must persuade middle-class Americans and businesses to give up some of the federal benefits they've enjoyed for decades--while fending off Democratic attacks on the budget plan as an assault on the poor. "It's the toughest marketing challenge I've ever had," concedes the second-term congressman.
Indeed, the GOP has to slash spending by $189 billion just to pay for the tax reductions in the Contract With America, and Republicans need an additional $1.3 trillion in cuts to balance the budget by 2002. Their plan: curb popular programs using a marketing scheme that is part business soft sell, part political hard sell, and part education.
TARGET GROUPS. In January, when GOP leaders decided they needed an aggressive sales plan, Hoekstra, the only lawmaker with Big Business marketing experience, was the obvious choice. He now meets daily with lawmakers including Representative Bob Franks (R-N.J.), who as state party chairman paved the path for budget cuts in New Jersey, and Representative Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), whose Staten Island district includes the kind of working-class voters the GOP must satisfy.
Like business marketers, they've identified five target customer groups: baby boomers nervous that Social Security will be broke when they retire; independent-minded Perot voters who want lawmakers to make tough decisions; blue-collar Reagan Democrats who favor welfare cuts but resent GOP tax cuts for the rich; seniors who worry that Social Security and Medicare benefits will be slashed; and young adults who fear growing national debt as a threat to their living standards. The unifying slogan chosen to reach these diverse camps: "Saving Our Future."
Although details of their plan won't be settled until April, Hoekstra & Co. have already decided on some elements of their pitch. Paid media will include TV and radio commercials, videos to train grassroots activists on selling the GOP's fiscal product, and direct-mail appeals aimed at specific "customer" groups. Republicans also hope to earn "free media" through a blitzkrieg on talk radio, where conservatives rule. The team will woo opinion leaders by sending lawmakers around the country to meet with newspaper editorial boards and by cranking out op-ed columns.
Hoekstra insists he won't use polls or focus eroups to choose which programs to cut--a tough assignment left to the GOP leadership. But he plans to apply those tools to fine-tune the mass-marketing of the final package beginning in April. He'll coach every Republican House member on ways to sell the program, then have them fan out to town meetings and campaign-style events back home during the spring recess. But, on the stump, Hoekstra wants his colleagues to stress the GOP's reform agenda rather than focus on steep cuts. For example, farmers would be reminded that they could win relief from costly environmental regulations to offset their eviscerated crop subsidies.
This isn't the first time Hoekstra has used such unconventional sales cues. He won his House seat in 1992 by bicycling across his western Michigan district, unseating the powerful chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Guy Vander Jagt, in the primary despite being outspent 13 to 1.
The GOP could certainly use some marketing help. During recent House Appropriations Committee budget-cutting, Democrats successfully painted the Newtniks as heartless lawmakers bent on sacking school-lunch subsidies and aid for the poor to shower tax cuts on the rich. The cuts "reinforce Republicans' image as lacking compassion, being uncaring, and sometimes mean-spirited," charges Representative Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "Mr. Hoekstra has his hands full." Indeed, persuading Americans to sacrifice some of their cherished federal pork will surely tax the talents of even Congress' top marketing whiz.
NAME Peter Hoekstra
EDUCATION BA, Hope College, Holland, Mich., 1975; MBA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1977
CONGRESS Won his western Michigan seat in a 1992 upset over veteran Guy Vander Jagt, who outspent him 13 to 1
BUSINESS EXPERIENCE Vice-president for product marketing at Herman Miller, a $1 billion furniture maker in Zeeland, Mich.