Dear CMO:
Karen Hughes is stepping down at the end of the year. Her role in the Bush administration has been Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, responsible for burnishing the image of the United States in countries abroad with a communications budget reported to be $900 million or so.

I don’t know Karen, nor do I have any desire to critique her work (as I haven’t actually seen any of it), but I’d have to remark that trying to be the PR flack for the US is about as thankless as coaching the New York Jets or being hired as former president Clinton’s personal legal advisor. It’s just a no-win job. The interesting part, though, is the “why.”

First, let me get back on firm marketing ground before Cam tells me I’ve gone political. I have a theory that I might as well lay out here for comment. Tell me if this makes sense to you. It goes for brands, countries, administrations, individuals, sports teams, and anything else in the public eye as they relate to basic human psychology.

We hate front runners, especially when they’re clearly in the lead. Conversely, we love close-run contests, love to see underdogs upset favorites, and are OK with a perennial winner just so long as they don’t always win and don’t win by a lot.

We can’t stand a lack of tension.

The United States was the world’s most popular country when the USSR was the alternative. Now, with no country vying for the #2 spot, the world can’t seem to say enough negative things about it. Apparently, even the New Zealanders have a paltry 29% approval rating of America as a country, for what that’s worth.

Why is Microsoft called, “The Evil Empire”? Sure, there’s an odd Mac user out there somewhere, but the world uses Microsoft to communicate, every single day (unless you’re using Wordstar in CPM on your Medfly).

Heard any good news about Google recently? Of course not. They’re equally evil. They aided and abetted the Chinese in censoring their domestic users. Forgive me, but is this a new phenomenon? Was China somehow a wide-open Wild West until Google showed up? Of course not.

And Apple. All they did was re-invent how we all buy music with a beautiful interface. Now, they can’t buy good press. I’ve written about this at length, so I won’t go into it here.

In short, we hate it when someone breaks out of the pack and stays ahead of the pack. How many network executives are praying night and day that the New England Patriots don’t end up playing the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl this January? Ratings will be dismal. Give us the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints (good luck), and every eyeball in the country will be glued to their widescreen TV’s. Why? Because they’re underdogs. They’re unexpected. For now.

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Key Takeaways:

> It’s great being number one, until you’re number one. As soon as they announce you, expect the boos to come cascading down on you for no other reason than, you guessed it, you’re number one.

> You know what the definition of an ignoramus is? Someone who doesn’t know something you learned five minutes ago. No one likes to hear that their new thing isn’t new. We all like to be in the know, to be somehow more exclusive than the next guy, and to feel the certain sense of moral superiority that comes with a well-placed shot of invidious comparison. So go ahead. If you’re not number one, feel free to look down on number one. Because everyone has number one. It’s common and yesterday’s news.

> Sometimes all it takes to start a revolution is to say “bang” loud enough in a crowded room.

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This is the heart and soul of the Aikido strategy we’ve discussed in Killing Giants. Use their popularity and stature and strength against them. For you, the job is simple: foment discord. Plant the seed that the giant is now too big, too common, too ordinary, too mass market. Damn them with faint praise.

Take your giant beyond the point where exclusivity is possible and replace it in the market’s consciousness with exclusivity of your own.