Why the ALP should care about positioning

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I see the attitude amongst many on the progressive side of politics who dismiss marketing as “gimmicks” or that it is just about “selling toothpaste”. Their argument goes that politics is more important, significant and above all, qualitatively different to the advertising and sale of consumer goods. This attitude demonstrates that the person who holds it has a misperception of what marketing actually is.

Marketing is not “sales” or “advertising” or “PR”. Those things are elements of marketing, but marketing is a whole system or approach towards an organisation’s behaviour, geared around satisfying the needs of the “customer”. In the context of politics (or unions, or non-profit community organisations), it is about political parties satisfying the needs of voters, citizens, constituents. A marketing-oriented organisation is values driven — that is, the attitude is not “sales at any cost” but about delivering benefits to the changing needs and desires of the voter. Marketing provides the tool-kit for parties succeed in a crowded civic and political sphere, not just in sales, but the whole process of delivering value and communicating ideas.

The reason I’m talking about this, is because of the prevalent view of marketing as “sales” or “advertising”. I see a lot of people in Labor, unions and the progressive side of politics, who very narrowly perceive marketing as just the market research and television ads.

That said, I’d like to talk a bit about positioning.

Positioning has been a major concept in marketing since at least the 1980s. Before that, the political concept of positioning has been intimately tied to progressive political theory. For example, Antonio Gramsci perceived class conflict in advanced Western societies as a “war of position” between competing social groups. The military concept of positioning goes back even further — and at its basic level is the idea that armies will want to take the most advantageous ground on a battle-field, or the most advantageous strategic positions within a theatre of war (e.g. fortresses, logistics centres, etc).

In politics then, positioning has a literal, logistical meaning, and a marketing/communications meaning.

Logistic positioning is a topic for another day, but it can mean winning and holding advantageous seats in parliament, it can mean possessing timely opposition research, or having volunteers with leaflets in hand in the right CCDs at the right time.

Positioning as a marketing concept is about positioning your brand in the mind of your prospect — that is, creating a reality in the mind of the people who’s behaviour you want to influence (e.g. buy your service or product). For politics, positioning of this kind is exceptionally important, because positioning can have long-lasting and serious consequences for political parties in the minds of voters.

Over-communicated society — all noise, no signal

From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we are bombarded with advertising messages. Many of the advertisements are inescapable — we consume them unconsciously through outdoor display ads, billboards, ads in newspapers and on television.

Our society — indeed, especially Western societies — are over communicated. There are simply so many messages seeking to break through, that we face what marketing expert Al Ries describes as “a light fog” that envelops everyone and makes it difficult for anything to “break through”.

For some time, all the advertising we consume, has been reduced to white noise — and it is noise that is growing louder. The human mind can accept only so much information at once, so we subconsciously filter out most of what we see or hear. As George Lakoff has shown, we more readily accept information that accords with our pre-existing views, beliefs and experiences.

Ries makes the point (which is backed up in other research, see here and here) that it is very hard to change a mind that has been made up. Once someone forms a view on a product, service or idea, they will more often than not reject new information that would cause them to change that view.

Once someone has formed an opinion about, for example, the legitimacy or trustworthiness of Julia Gillard, or the smugness of Peter Costello, it is almost always a waste of time to try to change it. Researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler explain:

People often resist information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. This disconfirmation bias is a particular problem in the context of political misperceptions…

When people encounter dissonant information, it is threatening to their self-concept, which they seek to maintain by either dissonance reduction or other strategies for affirming their self-worth… In particular, they tend to interpret ambiguous or mixed information in line with their preexisting views and to resist or reject counter-attitudinal information…

Despite this, political parties (and corporations for their brands) spend millions of dollars during elections to try to change the minds of people.

Advertising is a very weak force. It is like a water hose that has been turned to be a fine mist, rather than a concentrated stream. It touches people very lightly. When someone has made up their mind, almost no amount of advertising will change it.

Successful political advertising touches a reality that already exists in the mind — for example, peoples’ anxieties about their job security, and the ACTU Rights at Work ads, or George Bush’s 2004 “wolf” ads that connected to peoples’ fear of terrorist attacks in the post 9-11 world.

But by and large, relying on advertising to change minds already made up is a waste of time and money — it is “the road to advertising disaster” as Al Ries says.

Over-simplified message — less is more

The solution to communicating through the white noise is positioning. Less is more. Positioning is about getting into the mind of your prospect by finding the right words, at the right time, in the right circumstances.

This can be difficult for people involved daily in the cut and thrust of politics. By spending five minutes with a politician, you will be learning more about them than the rest of the population could in five years.

Marketing is about focusing on the customer, not the product. In politics, this means thinking from the perspective of the voter, not the politician.

There are two ways to get into the mind of a prospect.

Firstly, be first. For example: who was the first man on the moon? Who was the second? Who was the first woman who flew solo across the Atlantic? Who was the second woman? What is the highest mountain in the world? The second highest?

By being first in a category, you don’t need to compete with other brands, ideas, parties.

For category, read: policy or issue area. For example, Labor was first in the mind for workplace rights, health care, public education. The Liberals were first in the mind when it comes to national security, the economy, or border protection. (For more on this phenomenon, see my articles about the ALP and the 22 immutable laws of marketing.)

What counts is receptivity. The person receiving the message must be receptive to the idea; the person with the message (the party) must be receptive to the needs and wants of the prospect and be willing to change.

Like building loyal relationships, you get in there first and give them a reason not to change their minds. In the research literature, this is called “encoding”.

The second way into the mind is the hard way. Because battles of position favour the first person, it is very difficult to dislodge the first person. This is where repositioning comes in. Repositioning can happen in two forms.

You could create a sub-segment or new segment of a category. For example, hybrid cars, desk-top computers (compared to mainframes), gourmet burgers (for Grill’d vs McDonalds), or in politics, you can carve out new policy or issue categories. Labor did this successfully in 2007 by re-categorising the economy to the economy in the interests of working families. While the Liberals still topped Labor on the economy, Labor was seen as better manager of the economy for working families. Similarly, the Greens Party have created new niche categories in the area of social justice, for example: same-sex marriage and asylum seekers (and Labor abandoned those categories under Beasley).

The other way to reposition is to reposition the opposition. This is very hard to do, but it is possible. Al Ries describes “the crux of a repositioning program is undercutting an existing concept, product or person.” Arguing that “we’re better than our competitors” is not repositioning. Comparisons won’t work. They just reinforce the existing position of the leading brand.

To reposition a new concept, you must move the old one out. This is why it is so hard. It will typically rely on a major shock or revelation.

John Kerry was repositioned by the Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth, which turned around his strength (distinguished military service) into a weakness, by supposedly “exposing” that his valour was fake.

WorkChoices and the Rights at Work campaign repositioned John Howard from being someone who cared about the “battlers” into someone who had abandoned working families to the dogs.

Positioning — the ALP now

The ALP brand is in crisis. It’s primary spokespeople — Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, various state leaders and premiers — have low credibility and legitimacy.

Attributes describing Julia Gillard - via Essential Report

To get an idea of the changed position of Gillard, look at the graph above, which shows the change over time of attributes people ascribe to Gillard. (The data is from the Essential Report.)

Positive attributes have declined significantly, negative ones have increased. Capability and trustworthiness in particular, which are important brand choice attributes.

Julia Gillard's approval 2010-12 - via Essential Report

At the same time, Gillard’s disapproval has risen, and approval fallen. Trustworthiness and disapproval have followed the same trajectory. (This data is from the Essential Report.)

Liberal Party leaflet delivered in Lindsay in 2010 Federal election

The leaflet above is a Liberal Party election leaflet distributed in the electorate of Lindsay in the 2010 election. It uses a simple message to try to reposition Labor. The back of this leaflet ties the “failure” to prominent news stories about Labor: school halls, factional fighting, leadership, asylum seekers, etc.

It is effective (within the constraints of how successful direct mail can be) because it ties into the growing view in the electorate that Gillard is incapable and untrustworthy.

Labor, rather than focusing on long-term positioning, has sacrificed a lot of strategic advantages for short-term gain.

For example:

  • The switch of speaker from respected Harry Jenkins to scandal prone Peter Slipper
  • Obsession with chasing after un-winnable policy categories, like “the economy”, through pursuing a budget surplus at any cost
  • Dropping the CPRS after the failure at Copenhagen and rise of Abbott to the Liberal leadership
  • Doing a deal with the Greens in the minority parliament, which included the carbon price
  • Conceding that the carbon price policy was a broken promise
  • Repeated capitulations on the mining tax, pokies reform, health reform, etc.

One of the main positioning mistakes that Labor has made is their obsession with attacking Abbott. As the government (and Gillard as prime minister) is the “market leader”. It occupies the first place in many categories due to the prestige of incumbency. Leading brands that constantly talk about secondary brands, create confusion in the minds of the prospect — the power of the leader comes from the mind of the prospect. Brands that talk about secondary brands can cause prospects to ask “why are they talking about the opposition? Perhaps they’re no longer leaders.”

Talking about the competition is the positioning strategy of a market follower, not the market leader. By constantly talking about Tony Abbott and the Liberals, Labor and Gillard (et al) have subconsciously positioned themselves as a follower, not a leader, in the minds of many voters.

Why the ALP should care about positioning

There’s an obsession with the buzz word of strategy, but at a basic sense, strategy is: “The science of planning and directing large-scale military operations, specifically maneuvering forces into the most advantageous position prior to engagement with the enemy.”

And what is the most advantageous position?

According to Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s most-famous military strategist, “Keep the forces concentrated in an overpowering mass. The fundamental idea always to be aimed at before all and as far as possible.”

Concentration of forces — and overwhelming force — is the basis of much conventional military strategy.

Think about Obama’s positioning. He concentrated his messaging into the message of “Change we can believe in”. What was Hillary Clinton’s message? What was McCain’s? What was Michelle Bachmann’s or Rick Perry’s or Santorum’s? What is Mitt Romney’s key message?

What is Labor’s? So many pressures are on Labor to scatter its forces, to have a different message every day for every issue.

The result is that Labor’s messaging gets swallowed up in the fog of over-communication. No single message breaks through from Labor’s side, allowing the Liberal Party to reposition Labor.

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