Marketing a political candidate: Is it right?

Tuesday, 9 February 2016 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Given my passion for the discipline of marketing, I have experienced that watching closely how a political candidate is marketed is the best way to understand the changing best practices in marketing. 

Right now, my attention is on the US primaries which has the ability review the choice of a voter up to a 0.1 accuracy. For instance in Iowa last week we saw Hilary Clinton winning by 48.8% to Saunders 48.6% which can in fact be analysed to identifying which communication mix worked best and what needs refinement. This is the beauty of the US election strictly from a marketing point of view. 

DFT-14-01The latest Quinnipiac University National Poll on the Democratic candidate Clinton – 44 %votes, Sanders – 42% and 11% undecided.


Obama – Best marketer 

If I go back to 2008, the entrenched US elections, President Obama was crowned the Best Marketer by the popular magazine ‘Ad Age’. The award was given for his superior marketing skills that got him to the White House. 

In 2012, it was argued that Romney lost the presidential campaign because of Obama’s scientific use of technology, enabling his marketing team to convert stronger the voter insight into loyal customers, which is now a case study in top marketing schools around the world.


Marketing – Winner?

In essence, in a political campaign it’s about research driven action– the ability to convert insight about a customer and competitors into a superior strategic position and plan that persuades voters to choose a specific candidate. But it has to fit with who the candidate is. When conceived and executed flawlessly, the result is more votes and person getting selected to high office. Let’s watch closely on how Hilary Clinton performs in 2016.


My father 

My father who hails from a strong agricultural background of traditional tea industry keeps asking me one question: Is it right to market a political candidate to high office like a washing powder or a toilet soap? Isn’t it an ultimate indignity to the democratic process of a country? An interesting argument! It sure made me think. Let me give some clarity.


What is marketing?

Marketing in simple words 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 DFT-14-NAprovider is the politician.

A typical voter being a household’s basic requirements. As the local government elections is the talk of the day in today’s media, the typical needs of a Sri Lankan household are the timely collection of garbage, hygienic disposal of the dry and solid waste that will not pollute the neighbourhood, regular maintenance of the road infrastructure, adequate street lighting, maintainable of children’s play grounds, 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 at an election, 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.


Why right?

The logic on the democracy ethos is that it is marketing that brings in democracy to a system 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 being the message.

This can vary if one has to self-finance a 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 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 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 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 things which happen 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 it happens across many consumer brands too, of which I have first-hand experience, which is an interesting parallel that many are not aware of.

For instance, when a malted milk was 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 sale material whilst adopting 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.


Regulators role

One way to correct this situation is just like the insurance or mobile phone industry of Sri Lanka. If a regulator can be asked play a prominent more role, 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 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. The challenge is making it happen 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 four to six is the window that 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 it does not meet their expectations overnight but in the case of political candidates the switching time can be as long as six years. This means 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.



Hence we see that ‘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!

(The author has twice won the ‘Marketing Achiever Award’ in Sri Lanka in his 20-year marketing career at Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser and DiverseyLever.)

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