Debate will continue to rage over Thatcher’s legacy but her impact on marketing is clear

Almost at the same moment as the news emerged of her passing, the debate about Baroness Thatcher’s legacy began. No other UK politician has polarised opinion in the way Margaret Thatcher did. As the son of a union man from Yorkshire, I can certainly attest to that.

Russell Parsons

Arguments over the lasting impact of her unerring devotion to the free market, her express desire to blunt the power of unions and firm belief in the individual’s power to decide and shape their own future will continue for a long time yet.

What is not debatable, however, is that she has left a legacy to UK PLC and the marketing industry – in three areas in particular.

Prime Minister as brand

From the dawn of the television age in particular, it became essential for prime ministers to hone a public persona. The avuncular, trustworthy Harold Wilson and “Honest” Jim Callaghan both made attempts to identify their USPs but it was Thatcher that accelerated personal branding to present levels. Under the watchful eye of former TV producer Gordon Reece and the Saatchi brothers the “Iron Lady” brand was carefully constructed. All of what she said was conviction but it was presented using marketing techniques in a way never previously considered in the British political sphere. Tony Blair and David Cameron were busy taking notes.

Political and Government advertising

Party political advertising was not new in 1979 but together with Saatchi and Saatchi, the Conservatives’ “Labour isn’t Working” poster campaign created a benchmark for successful political ads. It is debatable how influential that poster was – uncollected rubbish and unburied bodies as well as the teetering UK economy were probably bigger factors in her victory over Labour – but the historical perception of the simple and resonant message cemented the power of advertising in the minds of all future politicians.

The consumer and consumption

Contrary to what she and her supporters would claim, Britain was not a socialist state stuck in the economic dark ages before 1979. The deregulation of the financial services industry, the introduction of Right to Buy that saw huge swathes of council housing sold to tenants, and the democratisation of shareholding following the privatisation of public utilities gave some in Britain the money to spend like never before. More disposable income and credit offered by the newly deregulated financial services firms led to more consumption, more products and more marketing.

Her free market approach also left many unemployed, of course, and arguably led to more extremes of boom and bust. It has also been strongly argued that roots of the recession we have been suffering periodically since 2008 were in Thatcher’s neoliberal financial policies.

What is clear is much of the modern Britain that marketers are now faced with stems from Baroness Thatcher’s 11 years as prime minister.


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