The Connection as the Key to Success

Applebee's succeeds by creating a sense of community, the authors of
Applebee's succeeds by creating a sense of community, the authors of "Applebee's America" contend. (By Scott Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Amy Goldstein
Tuesday, September 12, 2006


How Successful Political, Business, and Religious

Leaders Connect With the

New American Community

Douglas B. Sosnik, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier

Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26

It has been six years since a Harvard government professor, Robert D. Putnam, published the bestseller "Bowling Alone," which warned that Americans have become disconnected from their families, neighborhoods and civic life.

Now, a new book by an unlikely trio of political insiders turns Putnam's groundbreaking argument on its head. "Applebee's America" -- its name borrowed from the sprawling restaurant chain that bills itself as "America's favorite neighbor" -- makes the case that, at a time of unsettling social change, people across the United States crave a sense of community. The politicians, corporations and churches that succeed, the authors assert, will be the ones that find ways to satisfy that longing.

This intriguing, if not entirely bulletproof, idea is the result of a collaboration among Ron Fournier, former chief political writer for the Associated Press; Douglas B. Sosnik, a senior aide to President Bill Clinton; and Matthew J. Dowd, chief strategist for President Bush's 2004 campaign.

Despite their differences, the three write that they "found huge common ground." And in an era in which many political books are divisive appeals to factions of a polarized electorate, Fournier, Sosnik and Dowd have produced something more original: a lucidly written exploration of the common threads among successful politicians, regardless of ideology, and between politics and other major spheres of American life.

They draw their political material largely from what they had close at hand -- the Clinton and Bush presidencies -- and then draw analogies with Applebee's International Inc. and with megachurches, which they say are more about business than about religion. Their central thesis is that voters, diners and churchgoers are attracted to what the authors call "Gut Values Connections," which are more compelling than a politician's policy positions, a restaurant's food quality or a church's form of faith. "That's a lesson for anybody selling anything -- a hamburger, a candidate or eternal life," they write. "It's the connection that counts."

Savvy leaders, they argue, understand that the American public has grown cynical with mass media and other large institutions. Those who succeed rely on "life targeting" -- sophisticated marketing techniques to discern the values and tastes of specific segments of the public. These can then be used to conduct "niche communications" with voters and consumers through information technology or -- importantly -- by word of mouth.

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