Westen Strategies, LLC, is a strategic messaging firm, founded in 2006, which provides nonprofits, campaigns, and other political organizations and corporations with consultation and empirically grounded messaging advice, strategies, narratives, and ads. We have developed messaging campaigns for leading national and international organizations such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, the Natural Resources Defense Council, EcoAmerica, Families USA, First Focus on Children, and Media Matters, as well as political parties on multiple continents and Fortune 500 companies.
Over the past 15 years, we have worked on a wide range of issues, from social issues such as immigration, contraception and abortion, the changing demographics of America, unconscious prejudice, common sense gun safety, and drug policy; to economic and geopolitical issues, such as taxes and deficits, progressive economics, fair trade, the role of unions, health care reform, health inequities, clean energy and climate change, and national security.
Our approach is grounded in three principles:
- Start with the mind and brain. We begin with a simple question: How would you talk with voters if you started with an understanding of how our minds and brains work and evolved? It seems like a common-sense starting point, but it leads to a very different way of talking with voters than the approach used in most progressive politics around the world, which leads with policies, facts, and figures and assumes that good ideas will largely sell themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything from the syntax we use – e.g., avoiding third-person constructions such as “they” or “them” in referring to anyone for whom we hope to elicit empathy, identification, or inclusion – to the values we invoke – e.g., family, community, and safety – should reflect a sophisticated understanding of psychology and evolution.
- Apply scientific method to the way we talk with voters. We should use the same scientific method we use to develop and test policies to test and refine the ways we talk with voters or consumers. This, too, sounds like a truism, but progressives rarely build it systematically into their communications strategies. We would never make up policies “on the fly.” Why would we talk about them or the values that underlie them without thoroughly testing our language first? Unlike the right, which governs with intuition but campaigns with science, the left tends to govern with science but campaign with intuition. We should never name a bill without testing a dozen alternatives names for it to see what resonates with and motivates voters to support it. Yet that is our standard operating procedure on the left. Our unique background in academia, consulting, and activism allows us to offer something equally unique to our clients: an approach grounded in both basic science –psychology and neuroscience, political science, and related disciplines – and in applied messaging research tailored to your goals. We can take the most abstruse scientific terms, concepts, and policies and turn them into ordinary language and emotionally compelling messages.
- Seamlessly move between creative message development and quantitative testing. Our approach reflects an iterative process that effortlessly moves between creative intuition and empiricism. This, too, seems obvious, but it is not standard practice in either political messaging or marketing, in large part because only a small subset of communications experts have both the creative and quantitative skills to develop novel and memorable messages and to test and revise them using equally creative methodologies. In the language of marketing, the “creatives” and the “quants” at Westen Strategies not only get along but are the same people. They need to be, to have the “ear” to hear nuances in what voters are saying or can hear and the expertise to test those intuitive hypotheses against both qualitative and quantitative data from large samples of voters. Our approach reflects our experience in both clinical work and research, first in psychology and psychiatry, then in politics, allowing us to “listen with a third ear” to what people say in focus groups, polls, and Big Data, and then to refine our understanding quantitatively using large representative samples of voters.