If you are Hillary Clinton, the announcement that former Maryland Governor Martin J. O’Malley will seek the Democratic nomination was probably met by a yawn.  O’Malley is polling no more than 3% against Clinton nationally and under 5% in both Iowa and New Hampshire.  Nearly 8 in 10 Democrats are unfamiliar with him.

So is Hillary’s campaign ignoring O’Malley?  Publicly?  Most certainly, yes.  Privately? No way.

This offers an instructive lesson for those working in marketing, PR, advertising, branding, and research and analytics.

Hillary’s campaign is almost certainly hard at work right now playing out a wide variety of different scenarios:

If O’Malley tacks to her left – as he appears to be trying to do – how will voters react?  If he makes the campaign about generational change, what will she do to combat this?  If he camps out in Iowa, seeking to out-organize her on the ground as Obama did in 2008, will she do the same?

Hillary’s very savvy campaign pros want to fundamentally understand how engaging O’Malley’s message can be;  rather than wait to see if he ever gets the money and wherewithal to air said messages, they want to build a strategy for how to most effectively respond.  The goal is to predict the impact of different chess pieces moving around the board.  Keep in mind: This isn’t a theoretical or academic exercise, but  a simple recognition of what Clinton may indeed confront on the campaign trail this very summer.

So, what are Hillary’s campaign staff actually doing?

The Clinton campaign has likely put on their “O’Malley for President” hat and is leveraging research to test actual (or likely) O’Malley marketing collateral in order to understand how target voters react.  For example, they may put O’Malley’s announcement speech in front of swing Democratic voters, then elicit and analyze their reactions.  Or, they may create a mock O’Malley TV spot and direct mailers and test how it plays with undecided Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina Democratic primary voters.  Based on what tests best, the Clinton machine will have the right ammunition ready to go if O’Malley launches an offensive.  The Clintons call it the “pre-buttal,” and it’s a great example of political jujitsu – a strategy which has taken them to the White House, once, and maybe twice.

As smart as the Clintons are, the Pentagon is actually the originator of this technique .  They’ve dubbed it “war gaming.”  For example, if we need to invade Iran, how do we do it?  If hostages are taken in an embassy in a hostile country, how do we respond?  These strategic and tactical scenarios are played out, rehearsed, and (when they appear sound) documented, but also continually reviewed and updated based on new circumstances.  For example, now that the Chinese have aircraft carriers, how does that impact our offensive or defensive strategy military strategy in Southeast Asia?

So how does this work in the corporate boardroom? 

Pretty much the same way.  Imagine a couple of examples:

  • A competitor appears to be changing their marketplace branding, messaging, and positioning.  It’s vital to understand not only what their customers and prospects think, but what the competition would likely say and do, and thus how you should optimally respond and react.  Why not play this scenario out for target customers and game out the best response?
  • Your company is launching a new product or service.  What should you do?  One place to start is to give your customers the pitch and see how they react.  Why not also give them what your competitors will say and likely do?  Understanding how customers will respond before anything happens allows you to get a leg up on the competition.
  • You are expecting a crisis in your company to go public.  Put the idea (general or specific) to stakeholders and see what they say.  Ask what response (if any) they deem necessary in light of the circumstances.
  • You sense 2-3 macro changes coming to the marketplace.  Put these ideas – as best you can formulate them – in front of your key stakeholders and see what they think this means for your business or account.  Play out with them what your organization can, and should, do to take advantage of this.
  • A competitor is ramping up their social media engagement strategy and beginning to drive a greater share of the conversation.  How can you build on that conversation and effectively pivot back to what you want to have a dialog about?

Back to Clinton: Every significant step O’Malley – or now maybe even Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – will or will likely take will be examined and considered by Hillary’s brain trust in careful detail.  It’s a smart campaign strategy and one reason why the Clintons have been so successful, each reaching the very pinnacle in his and her field.