Why Sales Tax Elections Fail — They Don’t Address 5 Key Voter Perceptions

Case Study: Marketing Tips for the Pierce County Transit Board, Staff and Other Tax-Increase Proponents

Feb. 9, 2011

Sure, the economy and voter fatigue with tax increases were factors in the rejection of a proposal for a new sales tax to finance Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Wash. But the major reason is that the campaign failed to address the five value-motivating perceptions of voters.

When the campaign was launched, it appeared to have an advantage because it was backed by a unique coalition of business, labor and the public sector. Proponents only needed to win a simple majority of votes.

The “Save Our Buses” campaign was c0-chaired by Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland. She and her fellow proponents hoped for a sales-tax increase for an extra $30 million in annual revenue. The bus system touted it transported 18 million rides in 2009.

ID-100144214 Stuart MilesYes, it did face staunch opposition from a vocal grass-roots group calling itself, “No on Prop 1.” One e-mail reaction to me was a typical complaint: “…with $120,000 a year transit salaries, we’re not paying for bus service but for bloated salaries and unearned pay raises.”

But the opponents faced a seemingly invincible team of opponents – not just the usual unions and public officials.

A published report indicated proponent contributors included the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and businesses, including Wells Fargo Bank, because they feared employees would not be able to get to work.

The transit agency threatened to lay off about 20 percent of its workforce, slash services by 217,000 hours of service this year and services by 35 percent in 2012. So, they were asking voters to approve a sales tax increase of three-tenths of 1 percent. The agency was already benefiting from a 0.6 percent sales tax.

But like all major marketing campaigns that fail – fear is no longer a motivator, especially in a tepid economy. In my experience, the proponents never adequately addressed the five key value-motivating perceptions of voters.

Consider that 18 percent of registered voters will automatically reject tax increases. Their only motivation is the cost to their pocketbooks. So that’s a given, especially when they’re coping with financial hardships themselves.

On the other hand, that means 82 percent of voters will consider the tax-proposal’s value propositions before they vote. However, proponents fell short in the best-practices of marketing.

If voters have positive feelings about a sales-tax increase, their emotional reasoning will outweigh concerns about their wallets.

Their decision-making depends on their five value-motivating perceptions:

  1. What voters think of the vision of the proposal – 52 percent of their reasoning depend on what they perceive about the mission of the proposal and the logic of the people behind the proposed tax increase.
  2. Image of the public agency – 15 percent.
  3. Quality of Product or Service Utility – 13 percent. Voters subconsciously ask the question – “What will this do for me and the community?”
  4. Convenience – 12 percent. “How will such a tax increase be convenient for me?”
  5. Cost – 8 percent. So cost is important, but it’s the least concern among the five value-motivating perceptions – if the return on any investment is evaluated as positive in the minds of voters.

From the Coach’s Corner, for more marketing tips, see this site’s dozens of columns in the Marketing/Sales section.

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“For a truly effective social campaign, a brand needs to embrace the first principles of marketing, which involves brand definition and consistent storytelling.”

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Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at www.freedigitalphotos.net

Seattle business consultant Terry Corbell provides high-performance management services and strategies.