Why politicians fail the brand test

That old stock market adage about selling in May and coming back on St Leger’s Day ought to have an equivalent relating to General Elections and marketers. Except for the privileged few with a line into the main political parties, the run-up to elections is a dangerous clutter zone to be avoided at all costs, full of sound and fury signifying, er, very little.

This election differs from the breed only in being exemplary. It is difficult, on the evidence so far, to remember a duller one. In part this is due to more exciting events – the death of the Pope; the fiasco that was the royal wedding saga; MG Rover’s collapse; twinges of a consumer rout in the US – crowding out the politicians’ antics. More generally, low interest can be explained by a foregone result, allied to growing cynicism among voters about the political process.

In theory this should be ideal terrain for marketing’s political engagés to make their mark. The tired, cobbled-together policies that pass for manifestos would seem perfect material for a brand makeover; while the minute differentiation between what the parties are actually offering is typical of the everyday challenge facing marketers in the commercial world.

In practice, the influence of marketing has been limited. True, politicians of all parties have been salivating over the prospect of precision marketing techniques swinging the voting intentions of 840,000 voters in marginal constituencies. We’ve had Labour bombarding them with DVDs and mail-shots, while the Tories, also keen on mail-shots, have resorted to a personal message from Michael Howard on the telephone. It’s clever if cynical – designed to exploit to the maximum the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post system – but badly flawed as an approach for all that. A moment’s reflection about the realities of the commercial world brings to mind the low levels of a classic ‘successful’ response rate. And that in turn is predicated on a certain interest in the product or brand; whereas the immediate destination of most political communications is probably the rubbish bin. Never mind though, at least it’s fairly cheap and supplies a partial remedy to the incalculable loss of door-knocking party faithfuls since 1997.

Of course, there’s a lot more to party marcoms strategy than precision marketing. The Tories have won plaudits in the professional marketing community for what is, by any measure, a slicker, more coherent campaign. Right from the launch of the core slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, with its sublimated appeal to the politically ‘incorrect’ but emotionally powerful, Tory strategists have demonstrated clarity of aim and carefully focused thinking. Labour’s approach, by contrast, has been discursive and initially confused (no doubt reflecting fissures in the party leadership).

Will the Tories’ superior campaign make much difference on election day? Probably not. In the end, brands are bought on trust, a quality conspicuously lacking – for different reasons – in the two major ones on offer. Faced with this kind of problem, consumers usually resort to inertia (see, for instance, high street banks). And that’s before any consideration of a constituency system that patently favours the present incumbent.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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