Two years ago I was in Ottawa at the Carleton School of Political Management and training graduates on what political marketing is about and how it can be used, and naturally, discussing examples from the main Canadian parties the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP. We discussed the obstacles to Harper staying market-oriented as the longer parties are in power the harder they find it to stay, and appear to stay, in touch with voters. We also looked at how the new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was trying to re-brand the Liberal party after its’ major defeat in the 2011 election and what it takes to make a party market-oriented and offer a political product that will satisfy the demands of the majority of voters.
Political marketing is a complex area of practice. It involves researching the market – or listening to voters – and then designing a product that will appeal to enough of them to win power. This sounds easy, but actually the kind of product that will satisfy voters is hard to design and even harder to produce. It needs to be something that is responsive to key concerns, includes popular policies, but also is affordable (a product that voters don’t believe can be delivered won’t sell); doesn’t sell your soul (voters also want to see you have values and can show leadership); and will bring your party with you (you need them for the volunteer workforce required to communicate and get the vote out). It is a complex mix of following and leading; appealing to mainstream but also putting forward new ideas; and aspiring to achieve positive change whilst appearing able to govern the country.
And then there are the more tactical parts of political marketing which the Canadian Conservatives are incredibly good at – segmenting the market, profiling and identifying which tiny percentage of voters might influence the election and targeting all your energies to get them on board, identifying opposition weaknesses and focusing your communication on those. The kind of dark arts political marketing is often associated with rather than the more responsive, democratic market-orientation I made my career by studying. Strategic political marketing is however always harder to develop and implement; short term tactics are easier and more tangible.
Tactics are also easier than strategy to research, but I’ve always believed that the core part of political marketing is the strategy, and in particular, a market orientation; actually genuinely wanting to listen to voters and respond to their concerns. Respond does not mean follow, but it does mean being orientated, or linked to, what they think not just what you think. It is this that won Justin Trudeau the election.
There is a wonderful journalist Susan Delacourt who, since interviewing me about political marketing back in 2009 has since written a book Shopping for Votes and raises awareness about the use of marketing in politics. Whilst in Ottawa she connected me to Telford, Justin Trudeau’s campaign manager, and I was privileged to spend an hour over breakfast with her sharing her ideas and my political marketing expertise, and get a glimpse into the more reflective strategy they were pursuing. Once back in New Zealand, it was clear from watching the Canadian liberal party from a distance that listening to voters is something Justin Trudeau was consistently good at. Just following his facebook page made it clear he travelled the country far and wide and been seen listening to and amongst the Canadian public. Earlier this year I showed my students a number of examples from the Canadian Liberals when teaching the concept of a market-oriented party.
But he also stood up on difficult issues such as reports of problematic behaviour of male liberal MPs towards their female colleagues in another party; he also compromised on a Harper bill instead of just going for 100% opposition; and he took the courageous position of legalising marijuana despite government ads on the potential dangers
However it was not an easy ride. The Conservatives launched seriously strategic attacks against Trudeau suggested he was not ready to govern; this was not just game playing negativity, it was done early enough (the ads were launched April 15th, the day after he became leader of the party April 14 2013, and two years before a 2015 election) that it was a clear attempt to brand Trudeau as incapable of governing (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qKps7uG6eM or http://www.justinoverhishead.ca). Desirable he may be, but if he couldn’t run the country that would never win the trust of voters. There is no point offering a great product if people don’t think it will actually deliver what it says on the box.
And this attack seemed to be working. Mr Trudeau’s poll ratings dipped as did the Liberals. Add to this that the Conservatives are also world leaders in delivery marketing – and Harper had a strong reputation in economic management – and it seemed the listening to voters the Liberal put so much time into was not going to work because voters favoured a leader who had a proven record in delivery over one who might have a nicer product on offer but they weren’t sure could succeed in implementing in once in power. For most of this year he was behind as preferred PM and his party behind in the polls. Further attacks came during the campaign geared to ethnic voters. For the first half of the campaign polls show the NDP or Conservatives as leader; and colleagues I spoke to a month ago predicted a Conservative minority win. Vote Compass’s new initiative to predict vote choice also predicted a Conservative win. And when writing an article before the campaign started ‘The 3 D’s of Effective Political Marketing’ (see https://www.publicsectordigest.com/articles/view/1513) for the Canadian Public Sector Digest I too did not feel comfortable arguing the Liberals would win, instead suggesting they had won on offering the most desirable product but risked losing on deliverability.
But ultimately the age old theory that whichever party is most market-oriented wins, won in this election. Suddenly the poll numbers started changing. And they seemed to confirm what more in-depth market research had indicated – that whilst there may be questions about Trudeau’s governing ability he was scoring highly on being responsive. Abacus data in February this year explored public perceptions of the three main party leaders which suggested Trudeau’s strategy was paying off: Justin Trudeau was first choice on 10 of 16 items, coming out on top as the leader they thought they would most like to vacation with (55%); prefer to have babysit your kids (44%); have over for dinner with your family (43%); cook the best meal (41%) and be most likely to stop and help if your car was stranded (40%) (see See http://abacusdata.ca/party-leaders-are-people-too/). Thus, as I noted in my article for the Public Sector Digest:
‘It is not enough to critique your opponent, or have policies that are logical or economically sound. There has to be an overall feeling that the leader and party has researched and listened to the voters, and responded to them in the decisions they made on what policies to offer.’
And this the Liberals did. In response to Conservative attack ads on his hair, Justin Trudeau talked repeatedly of being ‘focused on you’; you being the Canadian voters; and having ‘real priorities.’ (see http://www.liberal.ca/real-priorities… And http://lpc.ca/9din). They rose above the negative personal attacks and retained their focus on offering a responsive product. Desirability triumphed over deliverability; market-oriented over governing; strategy over tactics. Just as it did in New Zealand 2008 when Key was elected over Helen Clark despite Clark also still being a very respected and trusted leader and voters having doubts about John Key.
Although governing of course requires a mixture of leading and listening, in an election, when the choice is a politician who listens more than he leads, voters chose listening over leading. Because listening to voters, and giving them a voice in government, is what democracy is all about. And so is political marketing (at least the market-oriented kind).
Dr Jennifer Lees-Marshment is a world expert in political marketing and author/editor of 13 books including Political Marketing: principles and applications 2nd edition and Political Marketing in Canada. She is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, and has given keynotes and held visiting professorships around the world. She was recently an academic advisor to the New Zealand edition of Vote Compass in the 2014 election – see www.lees-marshment.org.
Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/ Sean Kilpatrick