STONE the crows! Talk about shooting the marketer.

Policy thinkers fear politics is being taking over by the image experts, focused on popularity not policy – which upsets pointy heads who think the purpose of politics is to win the battle of ideas.

According to some-time political insider Stephen Mills, marketers are a menace in the way their successful campaigns debase the quality of policy debate:

Their work works: It provides vast new potential for the age old political arts of manipulation and image-making and destablisation. It can erode leadership; it operates less through broad national appeals than through fragmentation of the electorate into segments; it encourages selfishness rather than altruism; it is fearfully expensive.

Former NSW treasurer Michael Costa thinks much the same:

the new machine men think politics is as simple as borrowing techniques and strategies from the product marketing textbook. Politicians are now brands that can be subjected to brand management techniques

Plus ca change … . Costa’s concerns appeared last week in The Australian, Mills made his point in a 1986 book. [1]

They both have points. Since Mills wrote, the tools of marketing, segmenting the electorate, targeting messages and ensuring voters recall them in the polling booth have grown ever more sophisticated. And Costa is understandably indignant at the way he and Maurice Iemma were stopped from selling the NSW government’s power stations by apparatchiks who opposed the plan because they believed it would upset too many electors.

There is also a new argument that explains why political parties should keep everything unthreatening; the neurobiology of voters programs us to ignore any idea that does not relate to our emotions and basic needs. As US political scientist Drew Weston put it in a 2008 book urging Democrats to stop selling policies and start appealing to voters’ primeval wants and needs.

…you can slog it out for those few millimetres of cerebral turf that process facts, figures and policy statements. Or you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate, collecting delegates throughout the brain and targeting different emotional states with messages designed to maximise their appeal. [2]

Given all this, it is easy to see why keep-it-simple-and-unscary strategies appeal to political operators and their advertising agencies.

Easy but wrong and to call down a plague on the marketers misses the point. The practice of politics would improve if the boys and girls in the backroom paid more attention to the principals of marketing and less to smooth operators with focus group summaries or stats on unprompted recall of the party’s last 30 second TV spot.

In fact, this is the only way anybody with an unpopular plan is going to get it up. Which applies also to politics.

Adelaide academic Byron Sharp thinks there are seven laws of marketing, which apply to all industries, just as the laws of physics are universal, (Professor Sharp is not a bloke bothered by an argument with academics or advertising agencies). And the laws set two tasks for marketers selling any product or service; make it easy to acquire and ensure potential consumers have positive memories of it.

The first involves making a product or service physically easy to find and purchase; no problem for people in politics given the way voting is mandatory. The second is a lot harder, and involves keeping consumers’ memories of brands fresh and positive. Sharp writes:

Marketers need to understand the memory structures that have already been built for their brand. They need to use these and ensure their advertising refreshes these structures.[3]

For politicians it means sticking to what the market knows you stand for. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating got away with close to a decade of deregulation by selling it as fulfilling Labor’s obligation to improve ordinary Australians’ standard of living. John Howard increased welfare spending, presenting it as a defence of family values.

There’s not much point basing messages on what the focus groups like and what the polls say on the issue of an hour if it blurs your brand. A brand the strategy smarties don’t own. Sydney brand expert Martin Kornberger argues that consumers who incorporate brand values into the way they live their lives, even identities, are the real owners of brands.[4]

And they do not like them being chopped and changed according to the issues of the hour. Meg Lees paid the price for mucking around with the Democrat brand when she acted like the leader of a real political party by negotiating a compromise on the GST. This upset Australian Democrat loyalists, who preferred the political purity of impotence. But for people who believe in one of the major parties, or are prepared to consider either on the basis of what they stand for at each election, brand identity saves politics from the packaged candidates that infest American politics.

One of the underestimated reasons the Republicans did so badly in the last US presidential poll was that there was nothing underpinning John McCain’s brand other than his record in Vietnam. But this was more than his competitors had. The transcripts of a seminar where their marketing (sorry, campaign) managers spoke about their strategies makes Michael Costa’s point. They were obsessed with media mentions instead of crafting messages to explain what their candidates stood for (which in most cases other than ambition was not much).[5]

Sure political parties and candidates are brands; there is no way around that. But the laws of marketing apply to them like any other products and services. The challenge is to sell what you stand for. It’s easier said than done but nobody buys a brand that promises everything or appeals to everybody – they don’t deliver and the after sales service is disastrous.


[1] Michael Costa, “Rudd will pay for voodoo politics”, The Australian, 1 June 2010, Stephen Mills, The New Machine Men: Polls and Persuasion in Australian Politics (Penguin, 1986) 208-209

[2] Drew Westen, The Political Brain (Public Affairs, 2007)

[3] Byron Sharp et al, How Brands Grow (Oxford University Press, 2010) 149

[4] Martin Kornberger, Brand Society: How Brands Transform Management and Lifestyle (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

[5] The Institute of Politics, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2008 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009)