Ruthless targeting is key to modern elections

As with consumer marketing, insight is critical in an election battle. With a week to go until the General Election the Conservatives have keenly focused their campaigning on direct messages to swing voters in key marginal seats.

Tanya Joseph
Photographer: Rehan Jamil

I love elections. I adore referendums. I really love them.

I have observed them from the sidelines, reported on them, got involved in local and national campaigning in this country and others. I sit up all night to listen to results, not just of UK elections, or even the biggies like US presidential poll. I will monitor Twitter and listen to the BBC World Service to keep track of voting in the US mid-terms, the Netherlands and Gambia, Austria and Australia, India and Egypt.

I must be honest, I had a slight touch of plebiscite fatigue when Prime Minister Theresa May made her fateful announcement of our latest general election in the short window between the Turkish referendum and the first round of the French presidential election. But I rallied.

Naturally, I have strong views about who I support but that doesn’t cloud my judgement of the quality of the various sides’ campaigns. I come at them both as a marketer and as a political geek.

In many respects, political campaigning is very similar to consumer marketing. It is all about the brand and trust. Who do we trust on the economy? Who do we trust with the NHS? Does the leader look credible?

READ MORE: What marketers need to know about the General Election manifestos

But it is more complex than that. Very often, objectively speaking, voting for one party or another will be voting against your own personal interest. To win, parties need to reassure you that, no matter what, your voting for them is the right thing for you to do.

Successful political campaigners pull off this trick time and again. Think of all the black people, Hispanics and women who voted for Trump.

In many respects, political campaigning is very similar to consumer marketing. It is all about the brand and trust.

As in all marketing, the parties know that insight is king. The Conservatives in particular, under the guiding hand of Lynton Crosby, have invested heavily in data and opinion polling; going direct to voters, especially in key marginal seats, reflecting their concerns, fears and hopes. Crosby is the master at making elections about what people already think, going ruthlessly after the vulnerabilities of his opponents and if in doubt throwing a dead cat on the table to distract people from anything that could be tricky for the Tories.

And the preferred method of communication is direct. If you live in a key marginal seat, you will have been inundated with emails and social media messages supplemented with leaflets and door-knocks, which play on the very things that concern you most.

The parties will have used every algorithm, every piece of market intelligence and all their local knowledge to ensure they are focusing only on those most likely to be persuaded to vote for them. There is no point spending time or money on people who are already their committed supporters or those who have a poster for the other side in the front window, which, thanks to Facebook and Google Analytics, they will know even without having to walk past the house.

The most successful political campaigners are ones who manage to do three things. They make you believe that despite what they say (and their track record), they will look after people like you, that they are indeed people like you; and then they get you to get out and vote for them.

READ MORE: General Election 2017 – A foregone conclusion or can marketing create an upset?

And they have to be completely focused on getting the message out. They need to know how and when to respond to attacks from the other parties and when not to be distracted by the flim-flam – someone looking silly eating a bag of chips or a bacon sandwich.

They have to build brand affinity and prompt action on a specific day and, in the UK at least, they generally have to do it in about five weeks and with not much money. In 2015, the total cost of the election – ads, battle buses, rallies, leaflets – across the parties was around £40m. That compares to over £70m the supermarkets spent above the line during four weeks in December of the same year.

I have worked on chocolate campaigns and I have worked on political ones. I love them both but for one the stakes are a tad higher.

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