The British population may be disillusioned with politics but it will still take something special for people to break traditional voting habits.
Changing voter loyalty patterns could be the biggest marketing challenge for the new kids on the block, The Independent Group.
It was formed last week by eight former Labour MPs and three Conservatives, with more MPs indicating they could follow suit. The group has yet to register as a political party, but when it does it must woo those whose political loyalties are incredibly entrenched despite the current chaos.
Indeed, only 12% of voters do not have a consistent party preference, according to a survey of more than 1,000 UK consumers carried out exclusively for Marketing Week by Toluna on 19 February.
One factor in The Independent Group’s favour is that its brand awareness is already high, with 71% of voters aware of it less than a week after it was formed, and of those 33% those have a positive view.
Benedict Pringle, founder of the website politicaladvertising.co.uk, says TIG must first identify its audience. “This won’t be easy. It has to appeal to people who are willing to consider supporting a new party, devise polices that are clearly tailored to that audience and then find these people in potentially-winnable seats,” he says.
Another concern The Independent Group has to address is that this is a political brand led by Blairites who want to take the country back to 1997.
“They must get the support of mass media first and appear on political shows and news programmes. They can leave the micro-targeting on social media until later,” adds Pringle.
Look beyond London
David Sykes covered the EU Referendum as a BBC journalist and is now an account manager at Carrington Communications based in the Brexit heartland of Lincolnshire. He says appealing to potential supporters in the north will be a critical step in helping a new political party succeed.
“The Independent Group must overcome the London-centric image it has accidentally created for itself,” says Sykes. “It needs to push the MPs from more northern constituencies into the spotlight, with the likes of Luciana Berger, Heidi Allen or Chris Leslie taking centre stage. And it needs to stop hosting its events and conferences in the capital.”
Tom Edmonds, co-founder of digital consultancy Edmonds Elder, is a former creative director for the Conservative Party. He ran the Tories’ 2015 General Election digital campaign and worked on Remain’s digital activity during the EU Referendum.
He argues that the The Independent Group will need a real point of differentiation to succeed. “You cannot just be an ‘everyone-else-is-rubbish’ party and the sensible one on Question Time who everybody claps,” he says.
Edmonds believes cracks could show in The Independent Group eventually because the founding members come from different political standpoints. The group also comprises political mavericks who do not always toe the party line.
“The members of the group are also not well-known outside of Westminster. They do not have a ‘Boris’ or any activists or influencers,” he says. “You can have lots of Twitter followers but now you need to reach people who are not on Twitter. Labour’s Momentum, for example, has people on the ground.”
Indeed, the Toluna survey shows the majority of voters have not heard of any of the MPs involved in The Independent Group, other than Chuka Umunna, which is a name 56% of people recognise. Very few have heard of Berger (28%), Allen (13%) and Leslie (19%).
Policies will win a vote
More important than the faces of a new party are its policies though, with the research showing that people normally base their vote on a few policies they care about most (53%), followed by the party that will be in government (42%). The party leader and the candidate’s name on the ballot paper trail behind in joint third, both on 32%.
When it comes to policies, the key areas for a new party to focus on are likely to be Brexit, followed by terrorism, the NHS, immigration and the economy, which were highlighted as the biggest issues for voters at the 2017 general election, according to the British Election Study of 30,000 people.
The best way for a new party to engage voters, according to the Toluna study, is via news stories, with 67% suggesting this is how they prefer to gather information. This is followed by TV debates (41%), information received from individual parties (36%) and talking to friends and family (33%).
Separate research by WPP-owned Kantar Public Consulting looking at how political parties engage voters across 50 countries finds the principles are the same worldwide. It suggests The Independent Group must grab people’s attention quickly, make an emotional connection and follow through on its promises.
‘The Leaders’ Report’ by WPP’s Government and Public Sector Practice outlines the challenges political parties face, including falling levels of trust, a difficulty connecting with fractured audiences and a need to listen more. “These will affect The Independent Group,” says Kantar Public Consulting CEO Sean Larkins, who was deputy director of Government communications in the Prime Minister’s office between 2012 and 2015.
Larkins adds that it might seem counter-intuitive to The Independent Group but it needs to learn from the rise of populism. This includes appealing directly to the interests of ordinary people, sharing information quickly, speaking in plain English and being more authentic and personal.
“What is their version of ‘Take Back Control’ or ‘Make America Great Again’?” he asks. “‘Politics is Broken’ does not really hit the spot.”
At branding and strategy agency Williams Murray Hamm (WMH), which works with Waitrose, Network Rail, Jaffa Cakes and Barclays, the team has created some imaginary adverts for a political party formed by The Independent Group, trialling two names: the Nice Party and the Open Party.
One ad shows a politician with a Nice biscuit rather than a rosette with the catchphrase: ‘When everyone takes the biscuit, we are Nice’.
The second ad shows how the new party includes politicians from the left and the right. There is a solid block of phrases featuring the words ‘closing’ and ‘closed’ including ‘closing borders, closing healthcare, closing employment, closed opinions, closing shops, closed book, eyes closed, closed future’ and finishes with the line ‘Don’t lock Britain up – The Open Party’, with the ‘O’ of ‘Open’ resembling an unlocked padlock.
WMH founding partner Richard Williams, who is standing as a local independent councillor in Surrey this year, says The Independent Group must have a purpose and give people a reason to vote for it.
“You need a strong brand in politics,” he says. “Brand Corbyn worked but has peaked as young people get frustrated with him. The Independent Group has yet to say clearly what it stands for. Is it about healing and harmony?”
Any new party must also decide on a logo and decide on what colour to adopt, given red, blue, orange, yellow, purple and green are synonymous with existing parties.
Cultural insight agency Sign Salad specialises in semiotics and language analysis. Senior semiotician Clare Kane says political parties have to master communicating a number of messages at once, while their logo is the only consistent element of their image.
“As such, it must act as a shortcut to a party’s ultimate purpose – something which can be achieved by using colours, fonts and symbols and connects immediately and intuitively with large swathes of the population,” she explains.
Kane says the importance of these elements is highlighted by the main parties’ continual tinkering with their logos in response to cultural shifts. “We have seen this with the Tories swapping Cameron’s eco-friendly green tree for a logo splashed with a Union Jack as UKIP nipped at the party’s heels.”
The emergence of The Independent Group has fascinated Connor Mitchell, a consultant at pan-EU PR firm Tyto and former PR adviser to one of Labour’s most generous donors John Mills, founder of JML and a supporter of Leave Means Leave. Mitchell says the overarching message from any new party must be a positive one.
“When people think of this group, the image that comes to mind must be one of brave political representatives who wanted to house the politically homeless, not one of disgruntled career politicians who just threw their toys out of the pram,” he says. “It needs to be synonymous with a message of hope and possibility to have any real chance of dismantling the two-party stranglehold.”
If The Independent Group does become a political party it will initially be marketing itself like a startup business, disrupting a market dominated by mature players with significant brand loyalty.
Like any new brand, The Independent Group will need a core narrative and a vision that gathers its own impetus and loyalty. If it fails, its attempts to shift two heavyweight market leaders will fail too.