Atlanta's Black Culture Has Influenced America for Decades, but Jan. 5 Was Different
Last week, there were tragic attacks in Washington D.C., spotlighting the troubling differences of what it means to be white versus Black in America. While it's important to discuss these disturbing actions of radicals and the divisions that remain in this country, it's also worth mentioning the historic Senate victories in Georgia. These wins will not only shift policies in the months and years to come, they speak to a larger shift in the country and how a state like Georgia is able to lead the way through careful strategizing and purpose-led campaigns.
For context, I am a white man with a Black wife and biracial children. Back in 1999, when I first shared that I was moving to Georgia, I was told by one of my old bosses that I was nuts. I was moving from Miami, and the implication was that Atlanta was no place for people like me and my family. Cut to Jan. 5, more than 20 years later. I couldn't help but remember that conversation.
Let's be clear, these were the Republican Party's races to lose, and they did so in epic fashion with a lack of game plan or adequate marketing approach. They rode the Trump horse into this race, and they were going to have to ride it out of it. The problem was, the era of persuading voters through mass media was over, much like the grasp of the politics of the Old South. The Republicans just didn't know it, or they refused to believe it. The Democrats did, and they used that to their advantage. What many people outside of Atlanta maybe can't fully appreciate is just how the Democrats' plan could only have taken shape in Atlanta.
The simple truth most of us in Atlanta know is that the tipping point of this election did not come during this election. The dominoes began to fall in 2018, when Stacey Abrams narrowly (and controversially) lost a bid to be Georgia's first Black governor. In defeat, she decided what happened to her would not happen again in her state. Her organization, Fair Fight, methodically began to find voters and give them the tools they needed to either register or make sure they had nothing standing in their way that impeded their voting process. She built the database that the Republicans couldn't. This long-game, grassroots approach is something politicians must take note of in the future if they plan to be successful.
Still, neither party could resist playing an expensive short game as well. Collectively, they poured in over $800 million during nine weeks of media in one state, making it the costliest Senate race to date. The majority of that money was spent on traditional advertising that created a ton of noise with no real impact for either side. Both parties let the PACs do most of the heavy lifting when it came to attack ads. However, Warnock chose to respond to those attack ads in a critical way. The strategy to use levity to let some air out his opponent's balloon worked masterfully. Lighthearted TV spots featured him walking dogs as he jokingly brushed off attacks by his opponent. For a Black man running against white woman in the Deep South, fighting back can get "complicated" very quickly. I couldn't help but think of Michelle Obama's famous line, "When they go low, we go high." That strategy worked perfectly here.
So, on the morning of Jan. 6, I awoke to the first Black Democratic senator elected from a Southern state in U.S. history. What I think a lot of people can't fully appreciate is just how essential Atlanta was to this story. Most people know that Sen. Warnock serves as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the very church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presided over during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But what a lot of people outside Atlanta may not realize is how inextricably interconnected Abrams, Warnock and Dr. King's stories are, all three having attended Atlanta's historically Black universities. Even newly elected Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff started his career by working for Atlanta civil rights icon John Lewis.
Whether it was Dr. King, Sen. Warnock or Stacey Abrams, their story is Atlanta's story, and they found ways to tell it that resonated here and across the nation. Their education happened here. Their commitment to community happened here. The impact they made to their community happened here but is felt around the world. Atlanta is unique to America in so many ways. All of the baggage and pain of the past, but most importantly, this city and the people who make it have always possessed the ability to refuse to accept things as they are. There is a truly special Black community with a legacy and infrastructure to make change that the rest of the world follows. That didn't just happen. It happened because it happened here.
There is a valuable lesson that every marketer can take away from the 2020 elections. You can outspend. You can out-shout. But no matter how massive your lead or market share may be with to start, if you don't have a true long-term game plan rooted in your brand's truth and purpose, in the end you will lose.