Friday, 18 April 2014

On the marketing of politics...

In the 1950s, with the expansion of television into every household, mass marketing was born. Clever blokes at companies making what became known as fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) found that they could pull customers into demanding brands using TV to advertise bold, brash and colourful brands.

Before this time marketing was as much directed to the shopkeeper as to the consumer. What marketers did was get the shop to display the brand and, in many cases, provide a financial incentive for the store to push the brand to shoppers. If you want to understand how this works, look at how pharmaceuticals marketing works today - the company can't use direct-to-consumer brand marketing and relies instead on direct sales efforts targeted at doctors.

Brand marketing helped transform our society (for the better I would argue), contributed to better quality, greater choice and lower relative prices. And along the way, it also provided a load of pleasure - we reminisce as much about the ads of the '60s and '70s as we do about the TV programmes those ads were wrapped around. Promotion was broad, sweeping and general rather than precise and targeted - ads reached out to broad chunks of the population: "C1C2 women in the Granada TV area". The once dominant sales people became mere order takers as the heroes of fmcg became marketers.

Looking in awe and wonder at this brand marketing was the world of British politics. It's not stretching the metaphor to say that, until 1979, British politics was stuck with that pre-war model because the law wouldn't let political parties advertise on TV. Politics worked at the local level where professional agents organised local parties to push the party message - that familiar method of canvassing to identify support and 'get-out-the-vote' to make sure that support materialises. In 1979, two young ad men (and brothers) changed how we campaigned with one poster.

Today this approach - a big, bold brand message poured repeatedly into promotional channels - dominates our political campaigning. That old 'sales-led' approach has atrophied - we still canvass, we still ask people for voting intentions and we still knock up on the day but these activities are marginal to the outcome of a general election. And it is the general election that matters - it is to politics what Christmas is to turkey breeders and Easter is to chocolatiers.

So political parties have turned to the marketing men for inspiration - to get the message honed to perfection, to get that message constant and consistent in every promotional channel. The party machine has been replaced by a team of experts pulled together so as to direct those channels. The leadership doesn't put its effort into policies and ideas that would improve the nation but into enforcing the message.

Politics is beefing up its brand management just as brand marketing begins to falter, as marketers respond to the challenges of a fragmented media market, to aggregation and choice-making systems. We are watching political parties applying the ideas of a past marketing age - relying solely on the power of their brand to achieve success. And it will work (for one or other of the parties) since the heuristic of those big party brands (we often call it 'tribalism' but it's essentially the same as always buying Persil) means that most people will vote for one or the other. Plus, of course, Britain's electoral system makes it hard for new parties - there hasn't been a successful, sustained new party since the Labour Party overtook the Liberals in the 1920s.

The problem (and people from all sides and none in politics have noted this) is that the fastest growing 'brand' in the market isn't a political party but what we might call 'anti-politics'. We watch as brand marketing is used to promote what are essentially hollow shells - things painted to look like large, thoughtful and ideological political organisations but in reality contain little but but ambition.

This isn't to say that there aren't thoughtful, creative and ideological people in politics or to suggest that there isn't a critical and fundamental difference between the politics of 'centre-right' and 'centre-left'. Rather it's to point out that the marketing of politics remains a child of 1950s mass marketing, something done to the public not with the public. And, as Douglas Carswell quite bluntly points out, 'anti-politics' is here to stay:

It's just a phase, many MPs think. Voters are angry over expenses or Iraq or more expenses. But the mood, they presume, will pass.

No, my friends, colleagues and opponents. This anti-politics thingy is not just a phase. It will not abate. We are witnessing a permanent change in the relationship between the governed and the governing.

The big brand politics will carry on for a while - our electoral system guarantees that - but at what moment do we start to worry? When turn out in a general election falls below 50% maybe? In 2010 that already happened in Glasgow NE, Leeds Central and Manchester Central - plus there are another 120 constituencies with turnout below 60%. And none of this accounts for the estimated 20% of the population that don't even bother registering to vote in the first place. Or do we wait until other parties and independents soak up a third or more of the vote in return for a handful of seats? In 2010 in England the two big parties got less than 68% of the vote and all but 57 of the 616 seats.

When I learnt about marketing all those years ago, they told about the 4Ps - promotion, price, place and product. Our political marketers - fresh from running campaigns in Australia or America - seem to have lost sight of these fundamentals and especially any attention to the politcal product. Marketing has become mere promotion leaving behind an etiolated, weak political product. Sound and fury has replaced the idea that politics is a shared enterprise between politicians and the people they represent.

For now nothing will change except that a few more disillusioned folk will turn away from politics. But something will give in the end. With luck what will emerge from that change will be a more conversational politics, one not shaped by the demands of a big brand and its message but by a desire to create the best possible political product.


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