Brand, image, values

Political parties — the big ones at least — these days aim not just to “campaign” but to “market”, to push “products” to “consumers”. There’s a small industry geared to it. You’re in its sights right now.

Politicians and parties have long used advertisements, pamphlets and other sales aids to pitch for votes. In the 1920s A E Davy’s catchy slogans and ingenious organising helped usher first Gordon Coates and then Sir Joseph Ward — of opposing parties — into office in successive elections.

But until relatively recently the politicians operated more by instinct, experience or ideology than by marketing wizardry. Armies of footsoldiers canvassed homes to identify supporters, delivered pamphlets and took supporters to the polling stations. Hall meetings, often rowdy, were one of the main propaganda channels. Journalists respectfully transcribed the speeches.

That worked fine until “tribal” loyalties to parties wore thin as society became more complex from the 1960s on and then very thin when Labour and National seemed to swap sides in the 1980s.

Leaders began to plump “values” instead of pumping ideology. Marketers devised new techniques for sussing the market, defining and remoulding the product to meet the market and then selling it.

In 1972 adman (now mayor) Bob Harvey remodelled Norman Kirk from gross and greasy to graying statesman and revamped Labour’s advertising. In 1975 adman Michael Wall introduced hard-hitting negative television advertising for National’s hard man, Sir Robert Muldoon. In 1981 Mike Williams, now Labour’s president, imported direct marketing, using the electoral rolls. Then came focus groups to mine voter attitudes to issues of the day and what was bugging or exciting them and to test messages. An early example was Labour’s neutralisation of law and order, usually a negative for the centre-left, in 1987.

For the two main parties brand and image — of party and leader — are now as important as message and policy. They are road-tested with focus groups. Both major parties draw on United States, British and Australian innovations. National hires Crosby/Textor from Australia. Labour08 owes something to the Kevin07 campaign last year.

Auckland University political studies lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment distinguishes two elements in political marketing: market intelligence and product redevelopment to respond to voters’ changing preferences; followed up by a wide range of communication techniques to sell the product.

So Labour became a tax-cut party this year in response to voters’ demands and National removed policies which had stopped voters crossing the line in 2005. A marketing expert says National’s new soft blue billboards reflect recognition that its traditional dark blue is off-putting (a 1972 shift to orange just confused the message). John Key pronounced himself a bundle of “fresh” energy; Helen Clark pitched for “trust” in her experience and consistency (versus Key’s policy shifts).

Selling the product involves winning the agenda-setting battle against other parties and against ratings-driven mass media. While still playing to the 6 o’clock news, parties’ marketers bypass the mass media by, for example, push-polling voters (telephone canvassing pretending to be an opinion poll but actually nudging interviewees towards a perspective favourable to the party) and direct selling through automated telephone calls, texts and emails, targeted as much as possible to defined groups of individuals — or, at times, mis-targeted. Hall meetings (some open, more ticketed), “cottage” meetings for invited guests, mall walks, business and factory visits, lunches, dinners and conferences are also ways of direct selling to voters.

Cyberspace is still new as a vehicle. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton — and may well beat John McCain — using interactive website techniques to aggregate huge quantities of money in small amounts and to stimulate sympathisers to become active supporters and organisers of small events and networks. A pale imitation of the Obama support groups here is the cyber-organised Drinking Liberally left-leaning network.

In this campaign the Greens have the most accessible website. The Obama campaign excited cyber-savvy Labourites but its dedicated election website arrived late and a snazzier version was apparently canned. National revamped its website. Even New Zealand First, which generally uses older print and hall meeting sales methods, recognised how much it depends on its leader by setting up a blog-style website in August.

Most parties use YouTube and Facebook and other social network websites — Labour’s appears better at responding to “friends” of Clark than National’s to Key’s “friends”, according to Phil Harris of Otago University’s marketing department, who has taken a special interest in political marketing. But no one yet knows whether they reach, let alone persuade, young voters — or anybody. Moreover, they are ideal vehicles for spoofs. Blogs have proliferated but few have credibility with voters other than the already converted. Unsubstantiated rumour and distortions abound.

Until these “unmediated” media stratify, political marketers are flying blind.

And does marketing work anyway?

Lees-Marshment and Harris both warn that the political “product” is different in important ways from other products.

“Practitioners who go from commercial to political marketing are often surprised by how different it is,” Less-Marshment has written. “Political marketing is used to understand the public rather than manipulate it.”

She says parties are more complex than businesses, with memberships and backers to satisfy. That affects the product, the ingredients of which are the leadership, MPs, members, staff, symbols, rules, activities and policies — some ideology lingers. And the market is more complex than just voters generally, involving some segmentation of the public.

Harris notes that, unlike buyers of consumer products, all voters make their choices at the same time and the marketing effect must peak then (even if nowadays campaigning is almost continuous). Harris adds that there is no price attached to voting, a voter must live with the collective choice and voters cannot “unbundle” the “complex, intangible product”, of which most have only a blurry perception. Another difference with commercial marketing, he says, is that flow is two-way: pressure groups use marketing techniques to influence parties and voters.

Harris adds that whereas in product marketing “brand leaders tend to stay in front”, that is not so with parties. Political cycles come and go, despite marketers’ best efforts.

There is also a difference between lead-government parties like Labour and National, which must pitch to broad catchments of voters — and get 40 per cent of the vote or more — and small parties which have a distinct product aimed at a more narrowly defined catchment.

Labour and National must create an “image” of the party and leader. They must build “brand” loyalty to replace tribal and ideological loyalty — and must continually re-earn that loyalty with rewards to voters. That pushes them toward the market-oriented end of the spectrum.

Small parties do use marketing techniques: the Greens’ “vote for me” billboards of the young girl at the sea edge reflect market analysis. Small parties have brands: Greens are environment-preservers and the Maori party Treaty champions. Claire Robinson, a political marketing academic at Massey University, reckons those parties have a valuable added factor: its MPs live their brands. “Green” or “Maori” is a way of life, not just a set of policies, she says. (In reverse, Green co-leader Russel Noman uses Coke and Pepsi brand allusions to characterise National and Labour as indistinguishable.)

But Lees-Marshment argues smaller parties generally are more at the “sales-oriented” end of the spectrum: they “aim to sell what they decide is best for the people” rather than “satisfy voter demands and wants”, as “market-oriented” parties do.

Nor are parties the only marketers of their messages. Unions push the Labour party — in Australia, too, this time. The Exclusive Brethren pushed the National party in 2005. But their role is constrained this time by the Electoral Finance Act, the confusing rules of which no one can yet define.

Lees-Marshment thinks the EFA may also have limited the two big parties’ strategic product development. National, for example, held back its policies till late and has not clearly defined its product — she quotes John Campbell’s “Labour with tax cuts line” — and so, if in government, will not have a clear mandate to govern in hard times, with the added risk that voters will have filled the void with their own expectations.

Harris contrasts Labour’s consistency in attacking Key as a new boy, not yet qualified to govern and vacillating on policy, with National’s lack of consistency and purpose. “I have been surprised, given the resources National has, how amateurish it has been. There is not enough consistency and clarity of message.” So, he says, the building-for-the-future line is not getting through.

The message for big parties’ marketers is clear: define the product clearly and market it with skill and purpose.

But are voters just consumers waiting to be gulled by whizzkids? Actually, no. Marketing helps but cannot erase impressions voters build up of their finances, personal safety and state support. Those are what really count.