Advertising isn’t working for main political brands

The next time your agency presents a media plan, point out how TV and radio’s mass appeal shaped the election outcome

So, that was the election/ a month-long, intensive marketing campaign by three national brands that have been courting voters for more than 100 years. At the end of it all, consumers were not quite sure which brand to buy.

You would think, given their collective experience, the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat teams would each have delivered textbook learning for brand managers on how to woo consumers. But instead, in the past few weeks, politicians and marketers alike have had to relearn five key marketing lessons.

First, predictive research, which anticipates how someone might behave in a hypothetical situation (“If there were a general election tomorrow, how might you vote?”) is a lot less reliable than actual behavioural research (for instance, an exit poll that asks “How did you just vote?”). And yet, weeks before the election, the amount of political capital invested by campaigners chasing hypothetical votes seemed disproportionately generous when compared with efforts to attract real votes on polling day.

What also became clear is that the best default is to believe the findings of your research, not what you might wish the answer to be. If the surprising exit poll result taught us one thing it was how spookily accurate such a technique can be. Nobody could believe a forecast of “only” 307 seats for the Tories or a “collapse” in notional Lib Dem support – but that is exactly how it played out, after politicians of all sides had blithely assured us all that the pollsters, not the politicos, had got it wrong. Good research is the best data we have; believe it and act on it, don’t be in denial of it – especially when it’s telling you what you might not want to hear.

Second, this election reminded all of us of the real pulling power of old media. Although billed as the first social networking election, the only social networking most of us saw was a bizarre, C-list celebrity party on the BBC boat and some rather lame media coverage of bloggers and Twitterers (aka news journalists sitting at laptops in a studio) on election night.

This was, in fact, an election battle transformed by weekly TV debates – delivering multiple-million audiences – and shaped by the ensuing press response. Ironically, we had to wait until it was all but over for the best headline of the campaign – The Sun’s “Squatter holed up in Number 10”, which laid out the ground that a “coalition of the losers” would be untenable.

number 10
The most valuable lesson of the election is that great brands stay true to their principles – they don’t break covenants with the consumer, don’t do deals, and don’t change strategy whenever an opportunity arises. That’s the route to short-term volume gain and long-term equity erosion. In the words of the textbook, they are “built to last”. Unlike coalitions.

In this column last month, I wrote that this election would be about the TV debates and direct campaigns in the marginals, and so it was. We should all be open to, and experiment with, new media platforms yet remain cautious about their usefulness to advertisers. The mass appeal of TV and radio shaped the election outcome – worth remembering the next time your agency presents a media plan.

The third lesson is equally fundamental: having identified the appropriate media channel with which to engage your target consumer, you still need to deliver memorable advertising – with a compelling proposition, drama and a memorable selling line. As brand managers plan their next mainstream ad campaigns, the election battle reminds us to fight for, and demand, fabulous advertising, because the political advertising in this campaign was uniformly dreadful.

It was a waste of money and energy from the campaigners, and a poor reflection on our ad agencies’ creative strength-in-depth. Just 24 hours after the closest-fought election in a generation, most people were hard pushed to recall a single poster, slogan or party political broadcast. Great brands deserve iconic campaigns; weak brand managers and account directors get the advertising they deserve. Advertising isn’t working, to coin a phrase.

The election served as a similarly brutal reminder for media owners. No editor or programmer should forget that well-deployed talent makes great programming; badly deployed, it’s rubbish. Jeremy Vine is arguably the nation’s best radio presenter, scooping the Brown (head in hands) Rochdale interview for Radio 2. Yet, on election night, he looked a berk, performing what appeared to be a form of TV studio Twister at 4am in front of impenetrable computer graphics. Meanwhile, I suspect, John Humphries was, sensibly, tucked up asleep in bed.

Finally, the most valuable lesson of the election was reserved for all of us involved in brand equity, which is that great brands stay true to their principles – they don’t break covenants with the consumer, don’t do deals, and don’t change strategy whenever an opportunity arises. That’s the route to short-term volume gain and long-term equity erosion. In the words of the textbook, they are “built to last”. Unlike coalitions.

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre. You can contact him at

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