Home / Rohantha Athukorala/ Marketing and war are similar; who will win on 10 February?

Marketing and war are similar; who will win on 10 February?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 17 January 2018 00:00


If we watch any media channel today, the focus is on the 10 February elections in Sri Lanka. For the first time we see how a local election is being hotly contested whilst the top-of-the-mind topic is the Central Bank bond scam.

Personally, none of my family members or extended family members are connected to politics but I find the most interesting time in any country is at election time. The logic being, we see how a political candidate uses the best practices like segmentation, targeting and positioning, which is very interesting. Gurus of marketing like Al Rise says marketing and war are similar in nature. Let’s see the outcome on 10 February.

Marketing – Research-driven action

If I were to conceptualise the current war on the political stage in Sri Lanka, it can be summarised as research-driven action – the ability to convert an insight about a customer and competitors into a superior strategic position and plan, that persuades voters to choose a specific candidate. When conceived and executed flawlessly, the result is more votes and person getting elected just like a household brand picked by a housewife. 

Political marketing ethical?

Given the guerrilla attacks we see in the current Local Government elections in Sri Lanka, a much-discussed theme is, ‘Is it right to market a political candidate to high office like washing powder or toilet soap?’ 

Some critiques say that it is an ultimate indignity to the democratic process of a country and it must not be encouraged. But the reality is that it is being done in every country. The best in South Asian was Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Indian elections and in Sri Lanka a trailblazer was former President R. Premadasa in 1977. 

These campaigns were not just flukes. They were conceptualised at lengthy boardroom discussions, then researched and tested before being rolled out with multi-million rupee adventuring budgets.

Basics of marketing

If I go back to basics, ‘Marketing’ means identifying what a customer wants and thereafter developing a solution to meet these requirements better than competitors but in a socially responsible manner. In the case of politics, the customer is the voter whilst the solution provider is the politician.

The need analysis is being done on the smallest unit in society – households. The typical issues addressed in a local election context like in Sri Lanka today are timely collection of garbage, hygienic disposal of the dry and solid waste that will not pollute the neighbourhood, reduction/eradicating of dengue, regular maintenance of the road infrastructure, adequate street lighting, maintaining children’s playgrounds, etc., to name a few.

The candidate who can effectively communicate how these needs can be addressed better by their overall solution will garner the support to be voted in on 10 February, which incidentally is marketing at its best. It would not be incorrect to say that it is the discipline of marketing that brings democracy into a system too.

But sadly, the 2018 February elections are taking a different turn of events and are focusing on macro themes like financial governance – the CB bond scam of Rs. 20 billion and the slow economic development resulting in consumption at the household end contracting for the third quarter in a row. In my view these themes are confusing the consumer (voter) and taking away from addressing the real issues that a local parliamentarian must address.

Why right?

There are two key fundamentals that make marketing right in the current situation in Sri Lanka today. The first is that the product/service that is offered by a candidate must communicate effectively how he/she will solve the voters problems – garbage collection, street lights working or the road infrastructure been right.

The second reason on how ‘marketing becomes right’ is that once a consumer (in this case a voter) makes a decision and selects a product (the chosen candidate), he or she must deliver on the promises made at the time of campaigning.

If these two perspectives are understood, then marketing becomes the modus of ensuring democracy is maintained. This means marketing a political candidate for high office is not an indignity to the democratic process of a country and in fact facilitates the decision-making process of a voter.

Why wrong?

Where marketing comes in for criticism is when marketing a candidate fails to deliver on the promise made after being elected. For instance, the collection of garbage daily, street lights not working and even after complaining no action being taken to correct same. Then, marketing of a political candidate to high office can be considered unethical and wrong. 

As reported in the media the current Government getting all the flak is on the second reason. Many are asking what has been achieved since 8 January 2015, especially on the front of ‘Governance’ which was the key reason the current candidates were voted in.

The other issue that makes marketing a political candidate wrong is if unethical practices are being executed which includes thuggery, blocking media and sound/street pollution to name a few. 

Regulator’s role

One way to correct the ‘unethical practices’ would be to follow similar practices of the entrenched competitive industries like insurance or mobile telecommunications. This is the appointment of a regulator. In the current context in Sri Lanka we see the Election Commissioner playing this key role. 

The typical regulator can be asked play an important role when major deviations are seen. This can include share of voice (SOV) issues, may be even the message content so that marketing unearths the true discipline where the truth is revealed.

Some can say that it is a farfetched idea in the case of political marketing but based on the best practices seen in other countries this can be achieved provided that there is a political will in doing so. Sri Lanka is seeing this in the true spirit driven by the President. The challenge is to see this through up to a final decision in a political economy especially in countries in the Asian and African regions.

The problem that can arise in the absence of a regulator when it comes to political marketing is that, the candidate who is less aggressive will not be able to carve out a clear positioning in the minds of the voter, which in turn will result in the competitor doing this for him/her and that can lead to confusion in the minds of a voter. This is something that many less aggressive politicians fail to understand.

Political marketing different?

A point that needs to be highlighted is that there are many clear-cut differences when it comes to marketing political candidates as against a brand of washing powder or breakfast cereal. A political candidate has a sense of urgency as only a three-month window is available to move the voter to purchase. So either one achieves Top of the Mind (TOM) awareness and then carries through to be appointed at the election or you are not picked up. This means that the ruthlessness of the tactics used in marketing a politician will be obviously different in velocity and breadth.

Another key difference is that brands can be switched by consumers if it does not meet their expectations overnight but in the case of political candidates the switching time can be as long as 5-6 years.

This means the purchasing cycles are different. This further justifies the need for one to practice cutting edge marketing so that it gives clarity on the decision that needs to be made at a polling booth. Let us see who will be the clear winners next month in Sri Lanka.

10 February 2018

From the above we see ‘politics’ and ‘brands’ have many aspects in common whilst it has its own industry related peculiarities too. But at the end of the day the winner is the consumer and in this case the voter. Is it ethical? The debate will never stop. Let’s see what happens on 10 February.

(The author is a marketer by profession and business leader. He has served the public sector and private sector at the highest level and gone on to serve the UN. The thoughts are strictly his personal views. He can be contacted on rohantha.athukorala1@gmail.com.)

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