Marketing a political candidate in Sri Lanka

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The weekend media was highlighting the changing dynamics of the local political arena with many actresses coming into the fray for the upcoming local election. To be honest, personally I feel it’s an interesting dimension purely from a marketing perspective given that the discipline of marketing is all about giving the consumer reasons to buy a brand. In the game of political marketing too this same process comes into play, with the voters being given a strong reason why they need to vote for a particular candidate rather than the other. So in absolute ruthlessness of the marketing ethos I find the new products that have entered the political arena will increase awareness on the part of the voter and drive a high involvement decision making process. My father who hails from the tea industry of Sri Lanka believes marketing a political candidate to high office like a washing powder or milk powder is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process of a country. This is an interesting argument from an ethical perspective. Let me throw more light on to this argument. Marketing politicians Let me begin by visiting what the discipline of marketing means. In simple words it means identifying what a customer wants and thereafter developing a solution to meet this requirement 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. A typical voter in a local government election is a “household’ that consist of a mother, father and children. Hence, if one analyses the customer wants, they can be listed as timely collection of garbage, road maintenance, security around the neighbourhood, adequate street lighting, sewerage and supply of basic utilities, not forgetting access to supermarkets, polas and banks, to name a few. The candidate who can effectively communicate how these needs can be addressed better with their overall solution will garner the support to be voted in at a election, which incidentally is what the marketing ethos advocates. I would even go on to take the high ground that ‘marketing’ helps introduce democracy into a country as at the end of the day it supports the decision making process of a voter. Marketing right? The logic for the saying that it is marketing that brings in democracy to a system is for two reasons. The first being that the product/service that is offered by a candidate must communicated effectively in a manner so that the consumer is better informed on who best fits their requirement. However, a point to note is that when communicating, this option must be available to every other competitor too with equal media time so that the ‘share of voice’ is same and the only competitive advantage is the message offered. This can vary if one has to self finance one’s campaign, which means that the candidate with higher financial muscle can garner a stronger share of voice. This ethos will hold ground when it comes to the below-the-line activity too, like staging meetings at neighbourhoods as well as hoardings. The second perspective 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 the promises made at the time of campaigning. "Marketing a political candidate ensures voters makes decision with better information. However, the debate is when it is not done in socially responsible manner" 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 marketing is wrong Where marketing comes in for criticism is when marketing a candidate it is done not in a socially-acceptable manner. This includes blocking of media, below-the-line rivalry at meetings, voters not being allowed to vote, unlawful voting, etc., to name a few, which happens in many parts of Sri Lanka, just like in any other developing country. But a point to note is that this is not confined to political marketing but happens across many consumer brands too, of which I have firsthand experience. This is an interesting parallel that many are not aware of. For instance, when a malted milk was being launched once in Sri Lanka, the competitor bought up the key media belts on radio to block the new brand that was being launched, poached the competitor’s key employees, broke down the displays at the retail end and pasted over the point of same material whilst engaging in guerrilla tactics of promotions to undermine the competitor brand. Some even go to the extent of stalking the route plan of a sales representative’s itinerary so that at the retail end you block retail space, which to my mind is somewhat similar to the marketing that is practiced during an election. The second point where marketing as a discipline draws flak is when used in politics, 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 to name a few when it comes to a local government election. Then, marketing of a political candidate to high office can be considered unethical and wrong. Regulator One way to correct this situation just like the insurance or the mobile phone industry of Sri Lanka is if a regulator can be asked to play a prominent role, so that major deviations can be corrected. This can include share of voice (SOV) issues and may be even the message content so that marketing unearths the true discipline that can be brought out to showcase democracy in a country. Some can say that it is a far-fetched idea in the case of political marketing but based on the best practices seen in other countries this can be achieved provided there is a political will in doing so. The challenge is making it happen in a political economy, especially in countries in the Asian and African regions. " Many point out the irregularity of marketing a politician but many brands and companies resort to the same behaviour like breaking down displays at retail outlets, blocking media by forward purchasing at launches, poaching on competitor employees and using guerrilla promotional tactics" 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, which can lead to confusion in the minds of a voter. This is something that many less aggressive politicians fail to understand. Politics vs brands A point that needs to be highlighted is that there are many clear cut differences when it comes to marketing a political candidate as against a brand of washing powder or breakfast cereal. A political candidate has to a sense of urgency as only a four-to-six-week window is available. So either one achieves Top of the Mind (TOM) awareness and then carries through to be appointed at the election or you are kicked out. On the other hand the pace at which one needs to drive a brand will be at a slower pace as the time bar can be longer. 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 they do not meet expectations overnight but in the case of political candidates, the switching time can be as long as six years, meaning the purchasing cycles are different. This further justifies the need for one to practice marketing so that it gives clarity on the decision that needs to be made at a polling booth. I guess this explains the competitiveness in which one plays the game in the political arena when it comes to an election. Conclusion Hence we see that ‘politics’ and ‘brands’ have a many aspects that are common whilst they have their own industry related peculiarities too. But end of the day the winner is the consumer and in this case the voter. We now have to wait and see if the promises made during campaigning will be delivered. [The author is an award winning marketer/business personality, an alumnus of Harvard University (Boston) and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute Marketing (UK). The thoughts expressed are his own and not the views of the organisations he serves in Sri Lanka or overseas.]

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