Is this just the result of a long standing lack of get-up-and-go in the Vodafone brand and it’s marketing or the sign of something a whole lot more important?
Anyone who knows even a little about Vodafone understands that it is a product led organisation which like many businesses struggles with understanding and delivering for customers. There has been a string of changes at the higher levels both in the UK and globally with David Wheldon leaving as Brand Director and Andy Moore leaving as Head of Insight.
The Vodafone brand is seemingly directionless in terms of both advantage and leadership especially in those markets where it holds an incumbent player status such as the UK. Of course those times, even in the UK, are changing as T-Mobile and Orange merge and consumers are taught that all the main players are broadly the same and the market is largely commoditised.
The CMO role hasn’t just been axed but replaced by a Chief Commercial Officer role and a Group Commercial function that will apparently, “help it focus on its customer and commercial strength, leadership in data, brand advocacy, cost efficiency and shareholder returns by reducing layers and simplifying managerial governance.” Clearly the last few Vodafone CMOs and their organisations haven’t done a very good job of communicating and delivering, if the only mention in the description of this new function of brand or marketing is “brand advocacy” (whatever that means).
So what is going on?
On one hand if it is Vodafone giving up on their marketing organisation whilst pretty demoralising for their marketing team, then so be it – they were pretty crap at it and their organisation has clearly rejected efforts to change. Stick to what you know and be true to thyself.
However if on the other hand it is Vodafone deciding that the core skills of world-class marketing are no longer relevant or valuable to them then I fear they’ve just accelerated the race to the bottom. A bottom that will all be about commoditised price-based products, no rewards for loyalty, constant switching, crap service and ultimately a smaller profit pool for the whole industry. That’s what happens marketing is replaced by the purely commercial.
Understanding customers, creating profitable propositions that leverage their technological and data advantages, delivering this as a compelling message to those customers, and commanding their loyalty profitability are what a CMO and marketing organisation should be able to do within any corporate culture if they are good at what they do.
As a customer I hope Vodafone stay true to tried and true marketing principles even if depressingly they have decided that the best way to implement them is not through a dedicated marketing function.
Leadership in Marketing: from shareholder value to stakeholder value
I’ll be covering the following questions.
How do businesses and brands build and rebuild the trust of consumers and society?
How do businesses and brands respond to the changing landscape of needs?
What is the role of brands and marketing in answering the challenges of sustainability?
How do we as leaders put humanity back into business outcomes?
I’m hoping the session will be thought provoking and interactive. I will explore several significant leadership challenges for business, brands and CMOs namely the need for more balanced outcomes from business as we move from a ruthless shareholder view to building stakeholder value. The battle for leadership in business and brands is increasingly being fought on a landscape that is intrinsically linked with sustainability and transparency in an effort to build and rebuild the trust of people and our society.
The session will include a presentation of the findings of my in depth study
into trust, humanity and sustainability, case studies of emergent best
practise and discussion amongst the group around some fundamental strategic questions.
The need for credibility is undoubtedly crucial and we need to avoid our industry turning inwards and defaulting to the seemingly age old, “we’re not wrong, we are just misunderstood” excuses. We must not default to the position that the solution to any lack of standing as a profession is solved by just needing to “market” marketing within businesses and “to the board”. We need new ideas and a vision for marketing’s role with the organisation.
As I mused on this I turned to my almost untouched (shame on me!) copy of “The Future of Marketing” for inspiration. This beautifully produced book was recently published by the Marketing Society for its 50th Anniversary. My depression deepened as I read the collected thoughts of 50 CEOs, from the “world’s most successful companies”, no less, in answering the question “What role will marketing play in the future success of your business?”
Guess what the answer is? A lot of “consumer is boss”, a truck load of “digital”, some “it’s all about growth” and shockingly little on sustainability (apart from good old Unilever). Andrew Marsden’s introduction boils it all down to “absolute agreement about one thing that will not change” – the battle for consumer’s trust.
What’s interesting about these snippets from these CEOs is that, by definition, what these CEOs think is the status quo. They extrapolate from the current trajectory of the world and their businesses to predict the future. Envisioning a radical future is hard for anyone but it is impossible for them. Incidentally this is compounded by the shocking lack of diversity in the group. Strikingly there were only 2 women and 2 non-white males in the group of 50!
I think marketing is on a collision course with the future. Our current marketing paradigm is inextricably linked to the driving of consumption and the creation of habits of consumption. This is the economic purpose of marketing: to ensure that demand outstrips supply permanently and profitably in a world of plentiful energy and resources. Economic growth has been the single minded outcome upon which we have built our brands, our marketing models and our rasion d’etre.
But unabated growth cannot continue. Rising populations, increasingly “middle class” and consumerist, means that there will be increasing competition for scarce resources. And marketing is already at some level becoming the thing to blame.
My hunch is that the future of marketing is not merely, or even, a “more consumer focused / digital / growth oriented / sustainable” (delete as appropriate) future but a complete reversal of the current paradigm:
We’ve been used to selling more stuff, the future will be about selling less stuff.
We’ve got great at creating new propositions, the future will be making things last.
We’ve become expert at making people value “goods”, the future will be helping people value what is “good” in every facet of their lives.
We’ve used advanced techniques to satisfy consumer wants, the future will be balancing outcomes for the common good.
And lastly we’ve become hooked on helping our businesses, our economies, often our customers, and in turn our wallets grow “fat”. The future of marketing will be helping people enjoy being “thin” by consuming less and conserving more.
This is an exciting opportunity for those businesses and brands, and their marketers, to move into a completely new and fundamentally more future oriented landscape.
We will extend our opening hours in our busiest branches: well this branch on the Strand was busy but their closing time was 4.30pm so no change there. In fact this caused one of the situations which impacted my experience – see the friendly service point below.
We will aim to serve the majority of our customers within 5 minutes in our branches. I love this commitment because I can hear the meeting in my head when marketing took the Charter to the retail operations guys – you can bet the result of this meeting was the insertion of "aim" and "majority" in this commitment. Well yesterday Natwest might have taken aim but I was waiting in line for 18 minutes to pay in a cheque.
We will provide you with friendly, helpful, service whenever you deal with us. The teller who deposited my cheque wasn't exactly brimming with the joys of summer but he wasn't that bad. However the man next to me got a shocking service. He turned up queued his 10 or so minutes and then presented the Natwest employee sitting on the other side of the glass with piles of cash. Her response, "Why are you here so late?" whilst rolling her eyes to heaven. I thought to myself why do you close at 4.30pm when every other shop on the Strand won't close until at least 6pm? This is a classic example of bank attitude: apparently the bank was doing the customer a favour by dealing with the cash. When will banks understand they work for us, especially true in the case of Natwest/RBS, rather than the other way round?
We will actively seek your thoughts and suggestions on how we can become more helpful. Having depositing my cheque I thought I would seek to understand the Customer Charter a little more by asking the lady at the desk about these commitments. Perhaps she would actively seek my thoughts. So I asked "What is this customer charter all about then?" Given these commitments we might have expected her to engage enthusiastically with me about the journey the bank were on to provide helpful banking. Her response "Here's a leaflet".
Any member of the Natwest/RBS team reading this, especially those responsible for the Customer Charter initiative, is likely fuming. Their anger will come from a sense of injustice that "this is a journey" and that the advertising is as much to their employees helping to set expectations, as it is to their customers. They will be upset that the internal communications they so lovingly created haven't been filtered down as they would have liked. They might be frustrated that the operational leadership "don't get it". But overall it won't really matter: the data will be made to look like service is getting better, the campaign is out there, and the initiative done. The next step on careers will have been made and if the commitments don't really make a difference then most likely the key people responsible will have moved on.
Don't get me wrong, we need better banks. We desperately need retail banks to deliver on their core function which is to take deposits, lend to businesses and individuals, do this courteously, and make a fair margin. I make the point in this presentation that the case for innovation in banking at the moment is weak. Conceptually much of the Customer Charter is to be applauded. What is unforgivable is falling into the classic trap of promising before you can deliver. The customer experience reality is far from meeting these commitments; and until it is Natwest/RBS should shout a little less externally and focus internally a little more. They need to build trust and that is not done by making promises you can't deliver.
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This week Natwest and Royal Bank of Scotland rolled out their Customer Charter and lots of marketing in support. Full page ads in papers up and down the country. According to these adverts they are now making 14 commitments to help them become "Britain's most helpful bank". If you haven't seen the adverts (and before you click on the links in this blog) guess what these commitments are?
Without being too cynical there are one or two interesting new ideas such as the community commitments which include staying open if they have "the last branch in town" (although this might create a perverse incentive for them to close down struggling branches sooner rather than later) and 25,000 financial education lessons (which again for perspective is only 0.0026 per child given there are 9.5m school children in the UK). More interesting is what has been left out.
Given that RBS/Natwest collapsed and was forcibly nationalised with taxpayers money by the UK Government in 2008 then wouldn't a commitment to financial stability and prudence have been appropriate? Given that the business failed because the money that was deposited by normal retail customers was used to build a balance sheet of around £1trn that funded risky investment banking wouldn't a commitment to managing risk more tightly been right?
And given the massive resources of this nationalised bank are the commitments to financial education really big enough? However, as I have argued on this blog before, the focus on banks at the moment should be on delivering a good, reliable service well rather than marketing and innovation (see Just How Special and Different are Financial Services Brands), in the end that is how trust will be re-established. Therefore many of the commitments are well made if they can be delivered.
So I decided to visit a few Natwest branches and talk to staff about the Charter and what it means to them. Of the three central London branches I visited none had any literature about the Charter even though all the adverts say that you can pick up a leaflet in branch. Chatting with staff I was greeted with the following comments:
"Yeah they told us about this last week, it's how they will improve the service"
"It's about serving people in 5 minutes"
"Dunno about that"
Searching the Twitter-verse this morning revealed an interesting series of #fail tweets from frustrated Natwest customers which might indicate that Natwest have a significant way to go on delivering their commitments.
This doesn't bode well and perhaps indicates that the timings of the marketing calendar trumped the roll out internally. This is a classic financial services marketing mistake.
Financial brands are built through experience and people. An employee that completely understands the experience they are supposed to deliver, and is supported by management and aligned incentives, is how these commitments will reach you and me. This is the really hard work of re-orienting and aligning people – this is where the focus should be rather than working with the ad agency. Without this the millions of pounds being spent on advertising this charter (and remember it is our money!) is mis-spent and will be more marketing spin that will make the lack of trust worse.
I wish Natwest/RBS luck with their commitments if they are one of the very few financial services brands and businesses that realise that the way they will win the loyalty, respect, trust and share of wallet of their customers is through creating employee advocates and excellence in actually delivering on their commitments rather than by advertising and marketing the hot air of what they intend to deliver in the future.
What do you think? Do you think this is a good initiative by Natwest and RBS? Do you trust them more given the 14 commitments? Are you a Natwest or RBS employee – what's your view of this campaign and the commitments? Any view – please leave a comment below.
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I was over at Sky a couple of weeks ago and picked up these internal flyers. They cover four areas:
“Do the right thing” – responsibility
“Reduce your footprint” – environment
“Get involved” – sport
“Be inspired” -arts
They are a good example of a brand rounding out its internal brand perception through a range of activities linked to its core business but not in a direct way. Most marketers think about focus, focus, focus – but this often leads to a mono-dimensional brand perception. Sky are covering a range of topics here that will connect with a much broader range of people internally and externally. The fact they are pushing these activities internally indicates that they want employees to feel proud of the brand and magnify through word of mouth.
You can learn more about these activities by visiting:
In 1413 Filippo Brunelleschi discovered how to represent the three dimensional world on two dimensional pieces of paper. “Linear perspective” caused a revolution in art that suddenly allowed artists to use paint, brushes and canvasses to create valuable new imaginings that still today add value to the eyes that view them. This new perspective, quite literally, unleashed an emergent way of thinking based on human-centred naturalism that became one of the philosophical underpinnings of the renaissance.
This powerful reductionist system of representing reality through a set of rules and mathematical constructs can illuminate our current economic challenges. We are facing significant challenges today as a consequence of the free markets that have powered our economic and societal development over the past 200 years. Challenges which have never more chillingly been exemplified by the unfettered market dominance of the past 30 years with its 3 year dénouement where we were taken to the brink of financial collapse.
Through the free market system and its invisible hand, we fooled ourselves that we had discovered an infallible system which took the complex multi-dimensional world and its inter-linked human, economic and environmental consequences and by clever perspectives and maths reduced it into two dimensional form. The resulting construction of the free markets markets, a version of linear perspective, where we thought incentives were aligned to create never ending “goods”.
But unlike the great artists of the Renaissance who gave us a lasting form of value through their art we have been proved wrong. Unfortunately it turns out that the incentives embedded in the linear perspective of the markets were certainly not capable of balancing finely tuned impacts in the real world.
This I think will be the emergent conclusion drawn from the experience of the past few years. It is reflected by much of the current debate about new economic and societal models that is moving from the fringes into the mainstream.
The questioning and emergent thinking takes time to filter through the food-chain. Hearts and minds need to time to process and change behaviour. Nowhere is this truer than in big banks. Often these organisations make glaciers seem strategically nimble.
Banks in the growth-obsessed, market-driven economy are the “top predators”, despite all their protestations that they “are doing God’s work”. The banks are the masters of market driven linear perspective. They act on instinct to out-perform the incentive systems they are given. As long as the markets operate within given parameters banks make huge amounts of money because they are so good at conquering the system.
Like a lioness hunting the last zebra on the savannah, they don’t think, they just do. This is why they don’t say sorry for what the real world sees as mistakes. As a pride of lions feast on this last zebra they don’t consider the wrong or right of their actions they act on instinct within a clear incentive structure devoid of any morality or any critical thinking.
If our banks are the top predator then might it be tempting to think that, like lions and markets, banks are amoral? Drawing this conclusion would be wrong. Abdication of responsibility cannot be justified because once the PowerPoint decks and Excel analysis is put aside, all businesses are run and operated by thinking, feeling human beings. Businesses both large and small, bank or not, need to operate within in a moral framework. If they step out of this framework then we should call them out as immoral.
This has been sharply exemplified in different ways in the past week by two very different situations: the unfolding scandal at the premier investment bank Goldman Sachs and much closer to home the FSA report into complaints handling at UK banks. None of the institutions involved will ever say sorry for what any commonsense reading of the situation would be seen as mistakes. Obsessed with the incentives of the markets no bank thinks that anything they do that delivers against the market construct is wrong, irrespective of the wider real world implications.
Goldman Sachs and one particular London based Goldman banker Fabrice Tourre are currently under investigation for a series of trades that the SEC maintain the bank knew were worthless (or “shitty” as one of their bankers described the deal in an email) and therefore broke the rules of the market.
An exchange during the testimony of Mr Tourre with a US Senate Committee was particularly revealing. When asked by Republican Senator Susan Collins whether he agreed that he had “a duty to act in the best interests of Goldman’s clients”? He replied: “I believe we have a duty to serve our clients, with respect to our role as a market-maker, by showing prices to clients and offering liquidity.”
This model of duty offered by this banker is one devoid of morality: the top predator creates the market devoid of any responsibility to think critically about the consequences of their actions. The question that is asked is: Does it allow me to fulfil what I am being incentivised to do? The two dimensional world relies on the blind assumption that incentives are aligned with creating good; no critical thinking or judgment on wider impact is needed. This isn’t just Goldman Sachs and these deals, this two dimensional amoral thinking exists at every trading desk in every major bank in the world.
The next example is much more down to earth. The FSA yesterday released a report into complaints handling at UK banks. This report identifies that most UK banks have “poor standards of complaint handling”. There are many issues identified but most tellingly some of the contributing factors are cultural: senior management not caring and staff being incentivised to make the complaint go away rather than handle it to a satisfactory resolution for the customer.
Complaints and their handling are a perennial problem in banks because the linear perspective of the markets doesn’t value customer satisfaction or “going the extra mile” – it values profit and efficiency. Until banks are measured on and structured to deliver three dimensional balanced real world impacts then complaints will never be resolved properly – it just won’t be important enough in a construct that assumes never ending profit growth is always a “good” and where consumers are inert.
Markets may be amoral but their participants cannot be. As we search for a new model we need to create a more balanced, probably less efficient, set of incentives that we don’t slavishly follow but critically engage in. We need to reclaim responsibility for our individual and collective impact as businesses and brands. Then, like the Great Masters of the Renaissance, we might just be able to create “goods” which last for 500 years and still retain the power to take your breath away.
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I wanted to leave this blog until after the manifestos were published. I haven’t had time to read them all in detail but is seems to me there is a genuine left-right difference emerging and I, for one, think that is a good thing.
Ritson’s response to this situation, as a free market advocate, is that we follow his suggestion to bow out of engaging in this election and even democracy itself. He justifies this based on the democratic process producing the current stodgy undifferentiated and unexciting cartel of parties.
This opting out response is wrong and dangerous. Democracy is simply too important and different to apply the same market based logic to it. Not everything should be run by free markets and that includes vital public services and our political system.
Politics is complex and much, much more important than persuading someone to buy a flight or a coffee. It requires a deeper level of engagement and effort from both communicator and receiver. Much of the trouble with politics over the past couple of decades has been the commercial marketers moving in imposing a flawed assumption that politics could, and should, be reduced to a single minded insight, benefit and reason to believe. That “we the people” could not be trusted or weren’t even capable of making an informed choice. The political elite became convinced that we were stupid, and guess what….we disengaged. Turnout in the 2001 election reaching a low of 59%.
The challenge of this coming election is whether I, you, and we, dis-engage or re-engage. This is an important election not because this MP or that MP fighting for thier seat tells us so. This is important because the only way we will get a better, more differentiated, more exciting system is by getting involved and demanding change. Our response to scandal and lack of trust must be to understand now more than ever that “they work for us” not the other way round.
That is why the differences that seem to be emerging are exciting. If you believe in a strong central government which will spend more and give the average person more state protection then you’ve got a choice in Labour. If you believe in less central power and smaller government then the choice is Conservative.
At last, and somewhat ironically given that we have retrenched to the traditional left-right big/small government dynamic, the third way, of Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and Gould, a marketing flim-flam if ever there was one, is dying back and we have a seemingly clearer choice.
When the election stays at the surface level, as it surely will for people who opt out, then all you hear is the focus grouped messages of “fairness”. The reality is that there is emerging differentiation. The leaders are showing their colours. We have greater access to information and content than ever before with information rich websites and televised debates. The more we engage, and debate, the greater sense of where the real differences lie. “Stuffing the election”, opting-out and throwing our hands up in the air is the surest way to ensure that nothing changes.
The choices maybe becoming somewhat clearer but they are far from easy and that’s the difference between democracy and Tesco, Ryannair, Starbucks and Facebook. Engage and we have the chance to influence and demand better. Dis-engage and we deserve what we get.
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Malcolm McLaren, one of the major forces behind the Punk movement died last week.
He’d probably hate this blog I’m about to write but here goes anyway – it’s meant as a tribute to the many things we can learn from “unreasonable” people like McLaren.
Malcolm McLaren was the marketing genius that propelled the punk movement into the spotlight and amplified its effect on our society and consciousness. He did such a good job that even now we all still hold a visceral understanding of the feelings and motivations behind the punk movement.
So how do you Punk your brand?
1. Be unreasonable.
Malcolm McLaren said: ‘There are two rules I’ve always tried to live by: turn left, if you’re supposed to turn right; go through any door that you’re not supposed to enter.”
It’s said progress is only made through the actions of the unreasonable. That’s the same with businesses and brands although sometimes it’s a little harder to see than black eyeliner and a mohican haircut.
But at the time it wasn’t reasonable for Henry Ford to say “I will make a car for the great multitude” or for Sergy Brin, founder of Google, to say “We had a simple idea, that not all pages are created equal. Some are more important,” or my favorite from Steve Jobs who said “I want to put a ding in the universe.”
All the greatest businesses and brands have been built from unreasonable people fighting against the system, seeing a better way and creating something extraordinary. Malcolm McLaren wanted to fight back against the mainstream which he saw as pallid and restricting. His ideas and vision connected with what young people were feeling and changed their lives, it gave others pause for thought about the direction of travel. Above all it got him noticed.
How unreasonable are you?
2. Connect with radical ideas and people
True game changing insight doesn’t come from sitting behind glass listening to Mr and Mrs Average tell you why they want a new car or like an advert. The really different thinkers are, almost by definition, at the edges, in the fringes of society.
Malcolm McLaren found ideas that sparked his imagination at the art colleges of the Sixties including Harrow, St Martin’s and even Croydon. He connected with talented, wild thinkers. He married one of his most powerful connections a young Vivienne Westwood. This undercurrent of youth and ideas demanded an outlet which created society changing content.
Great business and organisations look for true diversity and seek out ideas in different places. They collaborate in new and exciting ways.
Have you talked to your local university or art college recently about what they are thinking? Have you stopped to get together with people who have radically different points of view from you or look very different?
Where do you hunt for game changing ideas?
3. Develop content that fires the imagination.
McLaren was an ideas man and he had an intuition for developing content which through its medium and message had an impact. When McLaren and Westwood opened their shop in 1971 on the Kings Road they first called it “Let it Rock” then “Too fast to live, too young to die” then finally “Sex”. The constant re-development as the shop changed allowed it to continue to be a magnet for punk and background to the formation of the Sex Pistols. McLaren knew that linking sex and subversion was both incredibly attractive to the younger generations and incredibly challenging to the establishment.
“God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
God Save the Queen, The Sex Pistols
McLaren understood the media as well as the message. The message of God Save the Queen was amplified onto a national stage when McLaren hired a boat and got the Sex Pistols to play it opposite the Houses of Parliament and then got the boat raided by the police. This was what ensured that it was a hit in the same week as the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.
McLaren created and moulded content which truly captured the imagination and took over the consciousness. It was so daring in its conception that it demanded attention.
How about putting this as an example to emulate in your next campaign?
4. Social aims give you greater permission.
If you do put into action the recommendation above of emulating McLaren’s approach to creating and moulding content that demands attention – you are most likely to fail.
Why? Because if you’re a marketer or brand owner reading this you’re probably trying to sell stuff. What that means is that people will give you little latitude or room to maneuver. Punk, for all its aggression and bile against the state, and claims to anarchy, had the energy, naivety and pureness of a youthful desire for a different, and hopefully better way. A way that was more accepting, less controlling and more liberal.
This social aim lent Punk permission to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo.
The landscape of brand and business is rapidly becoming one where businesses that develop their social impact as well as delivering against their commercial aims will be the leaders. Adopting social imperatives starts a different conversation, it widens the scope of engagement, and creates space for new ideas and change to happen.
5. Success is a consequence of your strike rate.
Malcolm McLaren produced ideas most of which didn’t work but he had endurance and a belief in himself and what he was doing. Even the Sex Pistols, perhaps his most successful idea, crumbled because he didn’t realise the talent and opportunity that he had created.
But he got up and gave it another go. As the state re-established control in the 1980s and, as a consequence of the result of the social breakdown of the 1970s, the free market mantra of Reagan and Thatcher emerged, he continued to be disruptive and flamboyant. He worked with new bands and artists including Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow. He was responsible for the infamous “See Jungle” album cover where an underage Annabella Lwin posed nude in a recreation Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. In 2006 he even co-produced the film Fast Food Nation.
McLaren was comfortable with failure and just kept on developing ideas. Punk was about keeping the energy and momentum of change alive.
It’s only those businesses that embrace failure and keep swinging that succeed over the long term. The creative process is not easy, it’s not smooth. We’ve all read the books and analysis – most products and new launches don’t work – accept it, move on and keep creating. Until you do, you won’t get to your success.
May Malcolm McLaren rest in anarchy…
What do you think? Got a view on Malcolm McLaren and punk – leave a comment below – its easy and I reply to all of them!
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Over the coming month I am going to be reporting on the UK General election analysing the week by week action from a brand strategy perspective. If you would like to receive these thoughts and get involved in the debate then sign up NOW! (It’s free and easy).
As Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, made his way to Buckingham Palace yesterday, with camera helicopters chasing his every move, the official starters gun fired on the UK General Election. Two main parties are in the race – Labour led by Gordon Brown and David Cameron‘s Conservatives with a third smaller party The Liberal Democrats making up the roster whose leader is Nick Clegg.
Some are billing this as the “closest” election for years. Actually from an opinion poll perspective the Conservatives have what historically is an almost unassailable lead ranging from 5-9% over Labour. However boundary changes and Labour’s strength in urban areas means that in order to win power The Conservatives need a major 10%+ swing to gain power. The prospect of a hung parliament is a real one.
But where are the main brands and their strategies as we go into this exciting and important election.
The Conservatives haven’t made enough progress on repositioning Despite David Cameron and George Osbornes’ (Shadow Chancellor) best efforts to reposition the Conservative party it hasn’t been as successful as it should have been. When Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson undertook the repositioning of the Labour party in order to win power in 1997 after 18 years in opposition they tackled both the strategic and the symbolic.
They understood that the only way to really convince the electorate and win back trust was to truly give evidence that would lodge in people’s brains and persuade them of the changes. For Labour this wasn’t the addition of the eponymous “New” to their party name but actually the smashing of symbols of “old” Labour such as Clause IV – the pledge on the means of production being in state hands.
This combined with a series of clever tactics to neutralise doubt and allow middle class voters to think of Labour as a real option. They had lots of clever economic ideas but it was the promise to keep to the spending commitments of the Conservative government at the time which allowed people to get over their trust barrier since it allowed people to think “at least they can’t be worse”.
Unfortunately for The Conservatives their repositioning has been much less significant or impactful. Perhaps it is the consequence of too many people, including David Cameron himself, having a marketing and communications background but the electorate have, I think, a pretty good sense of the truth, that much of the change has been at the surface.
A new logo, a new leader, a new team, a greater focus on public services and a general move to the centre ground. But people still know that the Conservative party is still full of the old guard and the old links to privilege. David Cameron is an old Etonian – which shouldn’t matter – but from a brand perspective it does. It’s a symbol that the party hasn’t changed at its heart from the old ruling elites.
The question is can The Conservatives turn what they have to their advantage? I think there is an opportunity to return to some of their older, more deeply, held values such as lower regulation, more decentralisation and lower taxation to stimulate a commercial revival, and to say this with conviction presenting a more coherent and convincing story. This would integrate some of their new brand assets with their old.
Labour’s biggest weakness is Gordon Brown Gordon Brown is also a potent symbol. Unfortunately for him both politically and personally his brand story is tragic. The “nearly man” who when he made it to power oversaw a crumbling of a government.
The struggle of Brown is monumental. He is battling on so many fronts: the history of New Labour and Tony Blair; not having a mandate; economic crisis; Union power; Cabinet disunity….
His personal “rebranding” attempted through a series of more informal interviews is too little too late. Again the electorate has a pretty good view of the truth that Gordon Brown is a left leaning passionate politician, who has given his life to politics, but is consequently mono-dimensional and difficult to get on with. Not a people person at all.
The trouble is that he seems tired, whether smiling or not, and as a symbol of a government 13 years old, this is not good. The challenge for Labour is to communicate freshness and new ideas which is why a new leader installed a year ago would have helped.
Despite what the media is saying – this election is not about trust The media is obsessed, off the back of the MP’s expenses scandal, that this is an election about which political party brand or leader-brand to trust. It isn’t.
The expenses scandal was shameful but given the standing of politics in most people’s minds was just a confirmation that the “pigs” had their noses in the trough. This is a massive issue for the UK but this election will make not one jot of difference. By June everyone will still think that MPs are “on the take” and untrustworthy. The battle for trust will not be won in the next 6 weeks. Let’s remember that political power in the UK has been taken over almost completely by people with little experience away from Westminster. Brown and Cameron are prime examples, both have devoted their lives to the pursuit of political power. If the “political class” think they can regain trust in this time then more fool them – there needs to be serious reassessment of our political model, who and why people are involved and how our democracy works. This needs to be a national priority over years not weeks.
No, I believe that this election will be squarely about the economy and who will make the most progress the fastest on the deficit and creating economic, consumption based wealth again. Almost everything else, unfortunately, will be superfluous.
And here the brand battle lines are actually quite neatly drawn: Labour with an investment led approach, using Keynesian public sector interventions, and crucially not cutting in 2010; with The Conservatives advocating cutting sooner and deeper (although they won’t admit it) and enabling a free market recovery to pay down debt.
These are the same positions that have been held by the parties for decades. The brand and electoral challenge will be which party can communicate from their leadership, through their symbols, integrating their history, to their policies, in the most coherent and convincing way.
From that perspective this election is a classical brand challenge – how to use all your assets to surround the consumer with the right consistent cues to make them buy.
Tune in next week for further thinking on round two of this political brand bull fight! Remember you can sign up to receive this blog every week either in a reader or by email – it’s free and easy – click here NOW!