Why Startups Should Pay Attention to Herman Cain’s 9-9-9

Posted on Oct 30, 2011 | 49 comments

Why Startups Should Pay Attention to Herman Cain’s 9-9-9

This is intended to be an apolitical post  so if you want to get into a political debate in the comments you’re missing the point.

Herman Cain. He’s sorta lovable. He just says whatever he thinks and we expect politicians not to do that. He’s sorta like a crazy uncle. He says out loud that we ought to build a double fence on the border with Mexico and electrify it. WTF? He then says he was joking. And then that he wasn’t.

But his unfiltered approach is certainly resonating with early primary voters in the Republican party. While Herman Cain is an accomplished person, he is clearly not going to win the Republican nomination (if you need to see how out of step he really is with traditional Republican red meat issues see here).

The reality is that there are far more accomplished candidates in the Republican primaries who could challenge Mitt Romney – Jon Huntsman, for example. Huntsman was formerly the governor of Utah and the US Ambassador to China. He speaks Mandarin. His father is a billionaire businessman.

Yet everybody is talking about Herman Cain. At least at this moment. As Stephen Colbert said, “Get ready for a category-5 HermanCain.”

Which brings me to his 9-9-9 tax plan and why you should pay attention. In case you don’t know,

“the “9-9-9 plan” would replace all current taxes (including the payroll taxcapital gains tax, and the estate tax) with 9% business transaction tax; 9% personal income tax rate, and a 9% federal sales tax.”

To be clear 9-9-9 would never pass through the legislature and I’m not endorsing the idea (although I greatly believe a dramatically simplified tax code is hugely necessary – it has too many political opponents because anybody adversely affected by changes to the tax code is financially motivated to lobby against it).

But here’s the magic. With Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul all in the race nobody should even be talking about Herman Cain. You have the fringe candidate in Ron Paul. You have the red meat social candidate in Michelle Bachman. You have the groomed and polished candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. You have the “anybody but Mitt” candidate Rick Perry. You even have the old guard Newt Gingrich.

But we’re all talking about Herman Cain.


Because he has defined a plan that is different than what other people are saying. It is simple and easily explained. It has a pithy slogan “9-9-9” and a well staked out anti-establishment position.

Is it good policy? Probably not. So I’m not suggesting to startups that you define bad market positions to get noticed. I do advocate:

1. A clearly defined and differentiated market position – so many company have “me, too” slogans or consulting gibberish in their taglines.

2. A pithy saying that differentiates you – Most intellectual people don’t want to have to reduce themselves and their offering into a pithy statement. That’s fine. As long as you don’t care about getting any press. Or simplifying the purchasing process for customers.

3. A way to tell the press and customers what you stand for. They’re busy people who aren’t going to take the time to understand the intricacies of your business in the way that you do. Without this cogent set of messages it’s hard to rise above the noise

4. Human speak, not gobbly gook – I know you want to impress somebody at Gartner Group or your HBS professors, but they’re not the ones driving your market adoption. People need to find out about you. Don’t be “too clever by half” – be able to communicate to a wide audience of “normals.”

5. Repetition, repetition, repetition – You need to take every opportunity to ram home your key messages with people so they really start to remember your unique market positioning.

Back to Cain.  Once he got the discussion going he decided to do a bit of TV marketing. In stead of trying to seem like a polished candidate who was going to run a traditional campaign (a totally un-winnable position for a long-shot candidate) he took a different track.

He had his campaign manager to a totally unpolished video explaining why Herman Cain in the candidate to win. At the end of the ad (if you haven’t seen it you should check it out) his campaign manager takes a puff of a cigarette. Hilarious. Not smoking. I’m pretty anti-smoking myself. But the fact that they would actually have a campaign video showing smoking. It has become politically totally unacceptable to have ads with smoking. The video was no accident. They are trying to appeal to a part of America that wants government to stay out of its business. And what better symbol of that then smoking.

And the reality is that when they produced this video they HAD to know it would be controversial and therefore be all over the talk shows and late night comedy acts. And that’s just it. We’re all talking about Herman Cain again and even though some of you may find the discussion strange – it will appeal to a part of Herman Cain’s base. HUGE free publicity and control of the conversation.

The ad ends with a really strange, close up of Herman Cain staring at the camera and then a long, slow smile. Almost Mona Lisa like. This was definitely not an accident and has been the source of at least as much discussion.  If you haven’t seen Stephen Colbert’s rendition you simple MUST watch this video.

But when I think about “stunts” and free press I think about people like Marc Benioff (salesforce.com) or Dennis Crowley (foursquare). They have product offerings in competitive markets and end up getting more than their fair share of the press through stunts that both appeal to journalists writing stories and also reinforce their brands.

Salesforce for years ran a campaign of “the end of software.” What does that even mean? They had buttons with software with a line through it. A normal person would just say, “you’re still software, you’re just SaaS software and not on-premise software” but how many inches of press would that tagline get?

So my conclusion?  It’s not that you should pick something radical or necessarily be controversial. But in order to stand out from the pack and differentiate yourself in competitive markets – in ADDITION to having a great product you need:

1. A positioning statement for what you do that is clear, human speak, easily understood, dumbed down and pithy

2. A series of PR initiatives that are non traditional and stand out. It’s OK to use humor and be different. Be fun.

3. You need repetition.

Did I mention: Pithy, PR and Repetition?

  • http://twitter.com/darrentkong Darren

    Insightful. It’s essentially creation of a brand. High stakes political campaigning and the results being powerful case studies and natural experiments. I’ll be paying more attention to celebrities and political candidates.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, it is about creating a brand. Your brand needs to stand for something (your unique & competitive positioning) and then you need to communicate it in pithy terms.

    Think “Both Sides of the Table” – when I went into VC I thought, “how do I differentiate and stand out in people’s minds.” I chose a tagline that I thought would both represent who I am and would be memorable.

  • http://steamcatapult.com/ Dave Pinsen

    In yesterday’s FT, Christopher Caldwell had an insightful column about another sort of message by Hermain Cain that’s gone viral, the YouTube video in which his campaign manager, Mark Block, puts a cigarette in his mouth and takes a drag,
    “Americans, put that in your pipe and smoke it”

    The ad showing his campaign manager blowing tobacco smoke might also make people like Mr Cain better, too. Until recently, history taught that there was a limit to how far you could push common people before they resisted. The past couple of decades seemed to give the lie to that lesson. When you saw those pathetic nicotine addicts huddled outside office buildings on cold days, looking a lot like Mr Block does in the video – there seemed to be no limit to what a self-confident elite could exact from a demoralised lower middle class. But people still tire of servility, apparently. Mr Cain wants to be those people’s candidate.

  • http://www.davehopton.com Dave Hopton

    I have to admit when I started reading this post, I was worried what direction it was going into. However, I quickly realised I was wrong and it actually contains some real gems. Thanks Mark. 

  • Sid

    Joseph Goebbels was pretty good with the pithy stuff, too.  Just saying.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right. And Hitler was a great public speaker. Just because a bad person uses a certain skill doesn’t mean the skill is bad. “Just saying” must be your way of apologizing for insinuating an absurd and irrelevant analogy to Nazis in an otherwise intelligent series of comments.

  • http://twitter.com/galica Matthias Galica

    Great stuff. Thank for the inspiration to my StartupDigest email lead-in tomorrow.  And after all, LA is the town that pioneered the high concept pitch – “it’s X meets Y”.

  • http://MainStStark.com Jeff ‘SKI’ Kinsey

    Most insightful. Reminded me of “Its the Economy Stupid” –great branding.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Excellent post… Enough to give me one of those inspirational moments.

    Also had a laugh watching whomever trying to trip up Huntsman with foreign policy, military and intelligence lingo and he mopped ’em up.


  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Dave, yeah, that’s the ad I linked to in the post. The reality is that they knew it would be controversial. You don’t “accidentally” smoke in a campaign commercial. And they got TONS of free press as a result. And for the people they’re trying to appeal to, the “gov’t don’t tell me what to do” nature of smoking in the video probably did the trick.

    I don’t like the message, but clever. And I’m on the Herman Cain demo.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Yeah, I was hoping people wouldn’t be too turned off by the headline.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    what Steveasfdfsdfsd said below. Yes, he was effective. I’m Jewish so I know. But the efficacy of his communication skills and Hitler’s oratory skills don’t mean that we can’t learn from studying them.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster


  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Huntsman is the most qualified of the field IMO. Sad that his biggest disqualification is that he “worked for Obama” as US Ambassador to China.

  • http://twitter.com/spapa44 Steve Papa

    Agreed. Differentiate yourself, and  always be clear and consistent in what you stand for. Good article.

  • http://steamcatapult.com/ Dave Pinsen

    Oh, now I see it. I had skimmed over that part. Sorry.

  • Joseph Calandria

    This campaign would make the Heath Brothers proud. Extremely sticky due to it not using “common sense” when showing its core message in such an unexpected way. This approach definitely broke my normal patterns of thought which made it so effective in getting and maintaing my attention.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielSBowen Dan Bowen

    Huntsman remains me a lot of Bush Sr., great knowledge/resume, poor sales/communication skills = no mass Presidential appeal.  The are both perfect analogies to your article.

  • http://twitter.com/GregoryJayWhite Gregory Jay White

    The Federal Tax Code is 72, 536 pages in length, with enough loopholes in it to sink the Titanic.

    Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 is beautiful; short, concise, easy to understand.   I get it.

    Every tech team needs a Herman Cain to help simplify the vision and convey the value proposition.  

    Great post Mark.

  • http://www.clubvision.tv Doug Wulff

    I think Herman Cain had time to build clout as a sharp candidate first. Did salesforce & foursquare first market the merits of a superior product before employing PR that could be viewed as gimmicky?

  • http://twitter.com/markgeller Mark Geller

    If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. 

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Well as far as this Republican is concerned, his willingness to serve our country when asked by the President is one of his greatest qualifications.

    His real problem is that he didn’t understand the lessons of this awesome post. :)

    Name me one interesting thing Huntsman has said over the last year. I follow him on Twitter and I can’t think of one.

  • Adam

    Love the article. My company’s products in the last have rarely given us a great marketing mechanism. We have recently started working on a mobile ap
    Location that will make a great story for the press. Great article! Very relevant!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Herman Cain has an accomplished career. However, he was not taken seriously as a candidate until 9-9-9.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    While I appreciate your message, that there are branding lessons to be learned from shrewd political strategists. Businesses with great products can differentiate their companies’ as dominant social topics. There’s a flip side to your post that I think is much more important.

    Why don’t political leaders focus more on building a great product? The product of course being social and fiscal health, a nation with unbound opportunities. We need more political leaders emulating entrepreneurs.

  • Brian

    your post is all fine, but what is this quote?!

    “there are far more accomplished candidates …Jon Huntsman,
    for example. (…)His father is a billionaire

    I’m sure it’s a bit of unfortunate wording, but still…

  • Dave W Baldwin

    @aaronklein:disqus @twitter-373507944:disqus He just needs to make up his mind what he’s after.  Obviously he would be at the top of the list regarding a job in foriegn affairs.  If he wants to be President or Vice, he needs to get three hot statements out and repeat them until he’s blue in the face.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    At RealAcad, an incredible not-for-profit that is trying to reinvent ‘training global leaders’ in 1 week boot camps around the world, we are asked to think about our ‘bubble’.

    If you had to describe yourself in 1 line, how/why would people remember you? Even if you had to just start with your name?

    Always very insightful. Turns out what we think people remember is not really what they remember.

    1 thing that has stuck with me for instance is – my name is Rohan, and that’s like the kingdom in the lord of the rings movies. Atleast people remember by name now. :) 

    A couple of nice resources that come to mind are books by the Heath brothers – Switch and Made to Stick. 

  • JamesHRH

    No, the product is the person. Great political strategists take what they have and position it as strongly as possible. Mark’s choice of Cain is bang on – he has no ‘Presidential product specs’ but they have made him part of the conversation.

    The next stage is trickier, but you can’t win unless you get past the first stage (see Tim Pawlenty).

  • JamesHRH

    Mark – ‘pithy, PR. repetition’ is right out of the Trout & Ries playbook. Super solid advice.

  • http://profiles.google.com/alan.white1 Alan White

    Dave, glad to hear I’m not the only one who does that!

  • http://www.24pagebooks.com MartinEdic

    It seems to me that you are leaving something very important out. Your solid message can’t be a gimmick. These days you are building a reputation that’ s your ‘permanent record’. The 999 example will haunt Cain for years because it is a gimmick and it was ripped to pieces by real experts on both sides of the political table. All the repetition in the world can’t make a bad idea good, regardless of what Karl Rove preaches.
    There is nothing wrong with a strong, controversial position- as long as it has a basis in reality, a basis you and your company are willing to pursue and live with over the long term.
    Because nothing we say publicly ever goes away.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    “No, the product is the person”
    Maybe that’s my problem with politics and why I cringe at folks involved in that area. Most of them sell their ability to potentially lead based on past (claimed) accomplishments, as opposed to their plans for how they will lead.

  • http://dissertationtoday.com/ dissertations

    very interesting post! thank you for sharing!

  • Ran Ever-Hadani

    Great post.  The downside – at some point everyone will be trying to do this, which will make the environment even more noisy and cluttered.  There will be too many stunts, and the technique will become useless.  Remember when tease ads were all the rage?  Now you see one saying “on such and such date, X will be beating on Y!”, and you yawn and don’t bother to click through or pay attention of whatever.

  • Anonymous

    Mark how do you feel about taking the position of directly (and pithily?) differentiating yourself from the  800 pound gorilla in your market.  When I speak to people in the education market and tell them if they want to understand our product “Imagine the opposite of Blackboard.”  they invariably smile and start nodding their heads up and down. Others have told me not to acknowledge the gorilla.  I disagree with them.

  • http://www.pivotpointsearch.com Scott Thompson

    Congratulations to the commenters– at this moment 100% on point (message differentiation) with no off-topic political rambling. Unless Mark has edited?!

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “Most of them sell their ability to potentially lead based on past (claimed) accomplishments, as opposed to their plans for how they will lead.”

    Isn’t it “both…and”?  Past performance is a strong (some would say “the best”) predictor of future performance.  This let’s us know the ability to lead is there.  But where are they leading?  That’s the real question.  So, we need to hear a visionary strategy as well.  (Hmm… maybe, that’s what you were saying?)  

    BTW, love your opening comment above, Mark.  Had to settle for a “like.”  Politics can learn a lot from business.  We let people run our government that would be dead in the water if they tried to run a company.

  • http://twitter.com/TechWadiorg TechWadi

    I think this is as usual really fantastic advice that’s valid in any sales/marketing situation.. Whether it’s for a policy,  a product, or even an individual

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Thanks Donna, agree that past performance is a strong predictor.

    My gripe is with the (claimed) clause. Politically savvy leaders are masters of the claim, often discounting the efforts of the operators around them.

  • http://www.andyswan.com andyswan

    The substance of this post is awesome and bookmarked.

    The link to a really terribly written political hit-piece after declaring the post “apolitical”….not so awesome.

    p.s. I don’t smoke, so when I am on my 2012 road-show I will be shooting bourbon from an engraved flask throughout my pitch.

  • Anonymous

    +1 on the Colbert video. 

  • Alexshatkin

    He is just the best marketer of all of them. He tells his base exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to others. This obviously comes from his business background. You actually have to be smart to do this. It does not even matter if his 999 works or not, look at how the others are now copying it. This only validates his leadership.

  • Kirsty

    I think this article makes a lot of great points. It can be really interesting for startups to observe how politicians go about generating buzz for their campaigns and we can all learn a thing or two from them. This article is nothing to do with political affiliations, or who we like or don’t like. It’s about the clever ways politicians execute their campaigns to generate awareness and support. A message that’s simple, but  meaningful, can do great things!

  • Erik Hanson

    I liked the intent of the article, although I wish you hadn’t said “This is intended to be an apolitical post” and then gone on to bash Cain and his policy statements in at least six paragraphs.

    You could have saved your own political feelings, and still made your point. Just like I could have avoided this opportunity to mention Cain is more qualified to be President than Obama was when he was elected. *shrug*

  • Ray Abram

    Excellent article.  Dog bites man, no story.  Man bites dog, front page news.

  • http://www.kidmercuryblog.com kidmercury

    lying is a bad idea though. 9-9-9 is a scam;  the business tax is 9% of all value added — both profits and labor cost — and so it is a combined 9% payroll tax and 9% corporate income tax. cain’s plan is more like 9-9-9-9. bachmann called him out on that, correctly so. (not like i like bachmann, just mentioning she was right on that). 

    of course ron paul is the only real candidate, because the only problem is debt and he is the only one with a plan to address that problem. 

    the only problem is debt. 

  • http://twitter.com/SmartSoftMarket Smart Soft Market

    The challenge: All markets are crowded, too many products, too much noise.

    The solution: Stake out your own position by being different, and keep your message simple and memorable.

  • Aigerim

    Thanks, Mark for the advice! I took a class on political campaigns at SC with former McCain adviser and he taught us one very important lesson: everything should come in 3s. But I wouldn’t necessarily give Cain all the credit for 9-9-9… Seems like he borrowed the idea from Sim City-4 released in 2003 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/13/herman-cain-999-sim-city_n_1008952.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008