If Carly Fiorina were an unknown consumer product company trying to get some play, she’d be doing a pretty good job right now.

That’s because last week, she hit a home run when Donald Trump tweeted: 

Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard who had been polling at less than 1 percent prior to the Republican debates, emerged from the evening’s earlier face-off of also-rans as the clear winner, according to pundits and pollsters. She did so by taking careful aim, not only at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but also the irascible real estate mogul.

"He has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care, and abortion," Fiorina said of Trump in the earlier debate, referred to colloquially as the Kids’ Table, because it was for the candidates polling in the single digits or less. "What are the principles by which he will govern?"

She also forcefully criticized Trump’s misogynistic interaction with debate moderator Megyn Kelly later in the evening.

Trump’s response and acknowledgement of Fiorina, even though negative, echoed loudly, and helped make her a national contender. Today her numbers, according to some polls are at 9 percent, and she may now qualify for the main stage when the Republican candidates next debate in September.

The lessons are enormous, and important for any small business owner looking to edge out competitors. Fiorina has basically repositioned herself by attacking shrewdly, and as a result, she currently has a valuable opportunity to sell herself to the public.

This strategy has surely worked in a business context plenty of times in the past--think, Apple's smackdown of Microsoft in its "Get a Mac" campaign, or Taco Bell declaring war on McDonald's with its breakfast taco. But if you’re thinking of trying a similar plan to make your own business top of mind with consumers, or to gain market share, proceed with caution. 

Politics and business are only similar to a point, management experts say. And while politicians can unfortunately get away with misrepresenting themselves, or being soft on details, you don’t have the same luxury. And you never want to go negative.

“If you believe your product is the best, but your market share number is only a two or a 10, you want to clearly broadcast the strengths of your particular product,” says Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer and head of the managerial communications group at MIT Sloan School of Management. “But it has to be truthful and honest.”

Certainly Fiorina has a lot of work to do making her case to the public, and she’ll unquestionably be drawing on her boardroom experience in her ongoing campaign.

Her record at Hewlett-Packard, which she led form 1999 until 2005, is controversial at best. Under her leadership, the company’s share price decreased by more than half, she oversaw the layoffs of tens of thousands of employees, and she engineered a merger with computer maker Compaq that resulted in an ugly public feud with Hewlett family members. Fiorina was also ultimately fired by the computer company’s board.

With those things in mind, Fiorina’s strategy then, as now, is closest to something called agency theory, says Bruce Bachenheimer, a clinical professor of management at Pace University in New York.

Loosely defined, it describes the way public shareholders hire agents--such as chief executives--to make decisions for their companies. Sometimes these agents don’t work in the best interests of the company, Bachenheimer says, which could include having a greater appetite for risk than the owners have, because it’s not really their money at stake. And that appetite for risk sometimes increases as a company underperforms, because the agent’s skin in the game--such as stock options--are worth less. So it can cause an agent to aim for the bleachers, in an all or nothing strategy.

“For Carly Fiorina, it was worth taking a risk [in the debates], because the consequences would have been death by a thousand cuts, and becoming completely marginalized,” Bachenheimer say. “By attacking Donald Trump, she could get to five or seven percent in the polls.”

(For an idea of how that strategy could have failed, consider Rand Paul's unsuccessful attack on Trump.)

But there’s just so much leverage that Fiorina can get out of a campaign that’s largely negative, other management experts say. While she certainly seems to have boosted her poll numbers by attacking Clinton and Trump, she’s going to have to tell people in forceful language what she stands for.

And she’s likely to have more resonance with voters if she presents herself as a better alternative than the other candidates, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of management at the Wharton School, and author of Friend & Foe, which describes the shifting dynamics of how your competitors one moment can turn out to be useful allies the next. (Think of Hillary Clinton working for Barack Obama as Secretary of State.)

Schweitzer says SodaStream, the maker of the consumer home carbonation machine, is a good example of the proper way to proceed with messaging to your prospective base. Its strategy is to take market share from soda industry leaders, not by saying CocaCola and Pepsi have inferior products, but by saying that SodaStream lets consumers create their own drinks, for a fraction of the cost.

Such a message could play well in politics too.

“SodaStream is creating a value proposition that is entirely different,” says Schweitzer. “[Similarly] Carly Fiorina needs to articulate a message that is unique and credible and compelling.”

Published on: Aug 14, 2015