The ALP and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (part 3)

February 25, 2012

With the meltdown over the Federal Labor leadership now a national farce, it almost seems redundant to talk about how Labor regularly and systematically violates the laws of marketing. There is no doubt, regardless of which side of the Rudd-Gillard fence you find yourself on, that this leadership debacle has grievously wounded Labor for a generation.

Labor will lose the next Federal election — the toxic nature of this conflict will infect the state parties as Australians lose faith in Labor’s ability to govern itself and therefore the nation or the state (I predict our loss in QLD will be exacerbated by this debacle). It will take the current generation of ringleaders of this conflict to leave parliament for the poison to drain. Meanwhile, it is becoming more likely that the enervated, weakened party apparatus will be unable to provide new, fresh, rejuvenated leaders.

As we are now witnessing the last year of a Federal Labor government for a generation, I thought I’d try to go through rules 15 to 17 of Al Ries’ and Jack Trout’s Immutable Laws of Marketing.

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15. The Law of Candor

When you admit a negative, the prospect will give you a positive

Ries and Trout argue that by admitting to the downsides of a product or service, brands can disarm prospective customers and make subsequent claims to superiority more believable. This is because negative statements made by someone about themselves are typically believed to be truthful — mainly because admitting negatives is not something that most people or companies do.

The Law of Candor is a powerful marketing tool because negative statements made by someone about themselves (or a brand about itself) needs no evidence, where as positive statements require evidence.

For example, Ries and Trout use Avis (who admits to being “number 2 in rental cars”) or Volkswagen (who admits to making “ugly” cars). Thinking about more recent marketing campaigns in Australia, the advertising of chocolate bar “Picnic” comes to mind — which had the tag line “deliciously ugly”. By admitting the (incidental and not serious) negative of being an ugly looking chocolate bar, Picnic turned a negative into a positive — i.e., this chocolate must taste good if it looks this bad.

The Law of Candor means that customers are more receptive to positive messages that follow an admitted negative one. This doesn’t mean that brands should admit serious negatives — “this car is unsafe — but it’s cheap!” — or that brands should dwell on negatives excessively.

The point of the Law of Candor is to open peoples’ minds to a possible change of attitude. Remember the Law of Leadership, the Law of the Ladder and the Law of the Mind — most leading brands hold the primary “category” for a product/service (or political issue), making it difficult for secondary or tertiary brands to get into the prospect’s mind. By admitting a negative, brands (or political parties) can use that opportunity to get a second look.

Of course, the negative needs to be related to the subsequent positive. Listerine for example, ran a campaign in response to a rival brand of “good tasting” mouth wash. By admitting the negative (“Listerine tastes terrible”) it set up the positive that “it kills a lot of germs”. The flow if this negative is that if the mouthwash tastes bad, it must be a more effective disinfectant.

The ALP and the Law of Candor

There are several examples of Labor successfully and unsuccessfully using the Law of Candor. When Kevin Rudd in 2006 said that he was an “economic conservative”, he was admitting to the widespread view in the electorate that Labor was a bad economic manager (remember, “economy” is owned by the Liberals) — and by admitting to this, he was also saying that he would copy the main strength of Howard (economic management).

Similarly, this was the tactic by Gillard following the leadership coup in 2010 — by saying that the Rudd Government had “lost its way” — she was admitting a negative in order to gain credibility for the following statement that she would get the Federal Government back on track.

Finally, Labor leaders regularly use the Law of Candor during election campaigns, successfully and unsuccessfully. For example, the Bracks: Listens, Acts campaign slogan came from Steve Bracks’ admission that he wasn’t decisive enough and needed to make decisions. The admission came first, the slogan provided the positive for voters. Labor leaders who lead after an election loss use the Law of Candor to admit the primary failings associated with the loss; the benefit is then that Labor has “listened and learned”. Daniel Andrews for example admitted after the 2010 election loss that Labor had failed to listen to some key concerns from people in the suburbs (public transport, arrogance) and that now Labor has heard and will listen in future.

The Law of Candor, say Trout and Ries, must be used carefully. They state:

First, your “negative” must be widely perceived as a negative. It has to trigger an instant agreement with your prospect’s mind. If a negative doesn’t register quickly, your prospect will be confused and will wonder, “What’s all this about?”

Next, you have to shift quickly to your positive. The purpose of candor isn’t to apologize. The purpose of candor is to set up a benefit that will convince your prospect.

The recent blood letting by Labor MPs and Ministers about the negatives of the Rudd Government are exactly the kind of thing that should be avoided (for all the obvious reasons). They set up a negative with no positive or benefit for voters.

Where Labor has gone wrong in the past, especially in the post-1996 period, was to repudiate the Keating era without a positive message of Labor’s legacy. This was also a problem for Gillard after she became leader in 2010 — there was not a clear positive linked to the negative she admitted of the Rudd Government — and it was compounded when the Gillard Government continued to implement Rudd-era policies.

16. The Law of Singularity

In each situation, only one move will produce substantial results

This is an oddly named law, but it basically means that “trying harder is not the secret to marketing success” and that marketing success mostly comes from a “single, bold stroke”.

Ries and Trout argue that lots of little tactical moves won’t achieve the desired outcomes, and the larger a company or brand is, the more the Law of Averages “wipes out any real advantage of a trying-harder approach”.

I said in my first post of this series, that the Ries and Trout 22 Rules are very controversial — and this is probably one of the more controversial ones. Everyone knows in marketing (and political campaigns) that you need to work hard to win, and lazy campaigns are very rarely successful. The hard slog of door knocking, phone calling and street stalls that candidates need to perform is essential to a successful election campaign. The logistics, market research, distribution, sales processes and so on for marketing are also important — and no amount of slick advertising will help a product that can’t get distribution.

But the point of the Law of Singularity is that bold moves are more effective than lots of little ones. Ries and Trout use the many failed marketing campaigns of Coke against Pepsi — New Coke, “We have a taste for you”, “Catch the wave” and so on. The most memorable and successful marketing campaign for Coke however was “The Real Thing” — demonstrating that a simple, powerful campaign will win over lots of smaller ones, especially because “The Real Thing” ties into a lot of other categories that Coke owns.

On politics, the Law of Singularity shows itself with the idea of the “narrative”. Tony Abbott’s main narrative for the last two years has focused on a single, bold program: “the Gillard government is illegitimate”. Everything Abbott and the Coalition have done is built around this premise. Labor’s leadership woes simply play into this.

The ALP and the Law of Singularity

Labor in government under Rudd and Gillard have violated this law systematically. Under Rudd, the obsession with “announceables” to drive the media cycle meant that his government had no narrative, no bold move. Everyone was working hard to announce and deliver small programs that Labor was all over the place. The only time Rudd started to turn this around was the month and a half in 2010 when he focused entirely on health reform.

This frustrated Labor’s supporters no end because the 2007 election was so driven by a single, bold idea: Kevin 07. While there were lots of elements to this campaign, the Kevin 07 slogan wrapped them in a cohesive package for voters. Similarly, the complexity of industrial relations and scores of individual union efforts were encompassed by the bold, single idea of “Rights at Work”.

Compare this to the 2010 election, where there was no large idea or theme — the closest we came was “moving forward” which was dumped — and instead the campaign devolved into a series of unconnected daily announcements.

Gillard’s government has suffered from the same problem of lack of narrative — and her recent attempt over the past few days to create a central message that her government “gets things done” is too little too late. Although Gillard’s government has been the most productive in terms of legislation and reform, most of this has been tactical success rather than (as Gramsci would say) success of position.

17. The Law of Unpredictability

Unless you write your competitor’s plans, you can’t predict the future

There’s a saying that campaign plans should be renamed campaign “guesses” because they are usually wrong. Ries and Trout argue that many companies plan marketing campaigns meticulously only to find that all their plans come to nothing due to the actions of competitors. For example, IBM spent millions on producing OfficeVision to link computers to mainframe, only to have the product bomb due to Microsoft and Sun Microsystems promoting the PC.

Ries and Trout’s views are that long term plans aren’t very useful if they aren’t flexible. They distinguish between marketing plans and financial plans. Where many companies fail is obsessions with quarterly targets, and short-term financial thinking. Short-term marketing plans will also often do damage to a brand through line extension or trendy new slogans.

The solution to the Law of Unpredictability, according to Ries and Trout is that companies should be flexible and agile.

The ALP and the Law of Unpredictability

A classic example of the Law of Unpredictability in Australian politics has been some of the parliamentary tactics recently involving the House Speaker. Labor under Gillard has shown remarkable ability for tactical agility, exemplified by enticing Peter Slipper to become Speaker. Gillard has also shown that she is adept at adopting or dumping popular or unpopular (or easy and difficult) measures, such as the carbon price or pokies reform.

While Labor has shown to be tactically successful and flexible, at a strategic level, Labor is entirely at sea and seems to be driven entirely by polling (the political equivalent of short-term financial targets, as opposed to long-term values). The whole leadership debacle (going back to Crean being toppled in 2003) is driven by an obsession with polling numbers. When Crean failed to increase in the polls (i.e. failed to meet the quarterly financial targets), he was undermined and dumped. Beasley was challenged by Rudd and Gillard when he failed to raise his poll numbers in 2006. When Rudd started to decrease in the polls in 2010, he was assassinated. Gillard’s vulnerability to Rudd this week has come down to her poor standing in the polls.

What has this got to do with unpredictability? Basically, it doesn’t matter how much Labor plans and plots about getting bills through parliament, they are hostage to the whims of the voting public and variable polls. Because Labor has abandoned its successful policy categories, doesn’t have a strong set of values to articulate and has no narrative to tie its legislative program together, it focuses on short-term goals.

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The most depressing thing about the Labor leadership debacle is that Gillard came to power after deposing Rudd promising to fix the problems that beset the government — and the biggest problem of all, apparently, was that the Rudd government had lost its ability to communicate.

While senior minister after senior minister has come out in the last three days to say the real problem was Rudd’s inability to adhere to a proper consultative cabinet process that respected ministers’ authority, for us outside the parliamentary bubble, the problem besetting both Rudd and Gillard has been their failure to articulate a set of strong, coherent values.

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