Is it right to market a political candidate?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011 03:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The local government elections that concluded over the weekend became one of the most competitive elections that many of us have experienced at the LG level.

The competition was so entrenched, that for the first time I saw a leaflet drop from a helicopter and a varnished glossy magazine of a candidate’s profile cum work plan for a MC area being home delivered twice in the campaign. To cap it all, the shooting at IDH junction in Mulleriyawa sure created history at a local government election.

My father who hails from the tea industry of Sri Lanka kept asking me one question: Is it right to market a political candidate to high office like a washing powder and milk powder? It was an interesting argument that sure made me think. Let me give some clarity.


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 provider is the politician.

A typical voter being a household’s basic requirements from a local authority 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 and adequate street lighting, 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. I would go on to say that it is the discipline of marketing that brings democracy into a system.


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 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 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 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 firsthand experience, which 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 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.


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.

Politics vs brands

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.

I guess this explains the competitiveness that one plays the game in the political arena when it comes to an election. Sri Lanka witnessed a cold-blooded shoot out at IDH Junction in Mulleriyawa last Saturday, leaving six dead and one critically injured, that sure made the election memorable.


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. We now have to wait for the promises made during campaigning to be delivered. This morning’s garbage collection had not happened though!

(The author is an award winning marketer/business personality, an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston, and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of 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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