Politicians, brands and the mysterious missing link

Posted on June 10, 2014

Both brands and politicians are heavily dependent on the art of communication and audience engagement. So why is the former brilliant at both whilst the latter is often so bad?

A couple of years ago ’The Victory Lab’ by Sasha Issenberg was published. It was about ‘the science and art of winning campaigns’ in the USA and the British political set were gushing all over it. At the time I was trying to win a piece of work on a high profile politician’s re-election campaign so, keen to get a competitive advantage, I bought a copy and sat down to learn its secrets. However, the only thing I discovered was just how far behind politicians are in understanding how to engage their audience. The strategies and tactics described in the book might have been new for them but were mostly common sense communication techniques that have been practiced by brands for decades.

This gulf between branding and politics was well illustrated in a short piece in Marketing Magazine earlier this year by Katie Lee, then Group Marketing Director and now Managing Director at the ad agency Leo Burnett. Lee wrote about how brands need to get to grips with the breakdown of the traditional model of individual ownership and understand how consumers are becoming commitment phobic, with high expectations, low loyalty and ‘driven by a desire for flexibility and freedom when it comes to products and services.’

Lee’s perspective is robust. She makes valid observations about the increasing prevalence for renting and sharing of music (Spotify), accommodation (AirBnB), cars (Zipcar) to name just a few common characteristics of an emerging sharing economy. And so she should. She’s a senior exec at one of the world’s leading ad agencies and is simply demonstrating the value that her company provides to its clients by getting inside the heads of consumers and applying insights to their business models and communication strategies.

Contrast this with my experience of politics, where I have been involved in some capacity with all three major parties in the last ten years. It’s a world in which understanding your audience appears to be an optional extra and where the image portrayed so brilliantly by In the Thick of It – bumbling incompetence, bluster and, basically, bullshit – is dangerously close to the truth.

I have lost count of the number of times when some of the most basic concepts of audience engagement have been misunderstood or ignored by politicians. I have sat in meetings with people who have aspirations to govern the country but surround themselves with a team over-educated, over-connected, over-privileged graduates in ill-fitting suits, odd socks and no understanding of the real world. I have marvelled at the some of the mind-blowingly awful literature I have been asked me to approve before it gets printed and sent out to put off as many potential voters as possible. I have been briefed to develop voter engagement strategies in tight elections only to be told half way through that it would be good if I could do it free of charge, you know, because of who they are and the ‘influence’ they might have in my future if they get into power, which is quite funny given that they often can’t even influence their own colleagues.

Of course there are a few exceptions who do get it and are lauded as election maestros. I have met a few of them but they are a rarity and the truth is that most have nowhere near the communications skill of a blue chip Marketing Director who lives and dies by creating messages that people both listen to and act upon.

It’s sad that this incompetence is allowed to exist in the corridors of political power. It isn’t tolerated by brands so why should it be tolerated in Westminster? However, it does explain why the political establishment has en masse completely missed the phenomenon that Katie Lee writes about amongst consumers who, funnily enough, happen to be voters.

Politicians are deeply entrenched in their parliamentary bunker and wedded to a theory of political allegiance that is increasingly distant to the voting public. To be committed today to a single ideology betrays a naivety about the multiplicity of the problems we face as a society and the changing psychology of the electorate. Many people no longer consider their political views to be left wing, right wing or somewhere in the middle. Instead, they want to be able to pick and chose from a menu of policies from different ideologies that are appropriate for the job at hand and can work together to achieve a vision of Britain that is built around the greater good. Some problems require a socialist approach and others a capitalist one but our political system does not allow for such a choice to exist. It remains divided by anachronistic lines of left and right, with a significant bias towards the centre right. Such a structure prevents any government from tackling issues on their own merits and risks creating damaging catch-all strategies such as privatisation as a default position when nationalisation of some industries might be more beneficial to the national interest.

Today we have a political establishment at odds with an electorate that’s marching towards a renting, sharing and flexible mentality and reluctant to follow a single ideology at the expense of others. Katie Lee’s article refers to this from a consumer perspective but, whilst brands and marketers have observed and adjusted, politicians have buried their heads in the sand. They don’t understand that consumers and voters are the same people.

As if to underline all of this, in her column in the Sunday Times Magazine a few months ago, Katie Glass picked up on voter apathy amongst the young. She called out the usual criticism of lazy young voters for exactly what most of it is – patronising tosh. Young Brits don’t choose not to vote because they’re lazy, ignorant or uninterested. Far from it. She refers to a recent Eurydice study for the European Commission that found them to be over-represented in several areas of political participation, just not in the traditional ones. They’re more involved in campaigning for equal rights, an end to poverty and predatory capitalism than any generation before them. They use social media, sign petitions, wear t-shirts and write blogs instead of voting because those who stand for election constantly fail to represent them. They have defaulted to the platforms that work for their generation. Just as they have failed to understand consumers, politicians have failed to grasp this as well.

Parliament is filled with privileged, home owning career politicians who do not understand the realities of life as an itinerant member of Generation Rent. Home owners are far more likely to register to vote because they have an obvious long term vested interested but renters often move in and out of different electoral boundaries during each general election cycle. As Glass points out, these are people who can conduct their entire life on social media and yet have no option to vote digitally or register to vote without belonging to a physical constituency. It’s a system designed to alienate an entire generation.

“Young people are not ignorant, apathetic or politically uninterested; they’ve just found their political voice on platforms that work for them.” (Katie Glass)

The British political establishment is dangerously out of touch with the electorate, and has largely itself to blame. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Politicians would do well to learn from the strategies and insights gleaned by brands and leverage their knowledge of how to communicate in general and engage younger voters. It really is in all of our interests.

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