Forget Charlotte Street and look to the High Street – What politics can learn from retail

First published in Brand Republic on May 6th 2015

As we pull into the last few days of the 2015 General Election, I’m reminded of the main political parties’ lack of finesse when it comes to campaign communications. They only get to flex their marketing muscles every five years, so it’s not an area of expertise and their reflex action is to reach for a big blunt message and hammer it home repeatedly in traditional channels.

This time the approach is further exposed by voter cynicism and the rise of social media. So rather than looking to Charlotte Street for inspiration, maybe politicians should focus on the techniques of the High Street. It’s not as far fetched as you might think. There are plenty of similarities where retail techniques have worked in politics.

Politics is all about connecting emotionally with voters, which is something that the two main parties have failed singularly to do as their mid-30 per cent poll ratings show. The same has happened in retail where immovable monoliths like Tesco and Sainsbury have been outflanked by new consumer champions like Aldi and Lidl, who adopted a distinct tone of voice that spoke directly to the concerns of people.

Just as consumers have responded to this approach, so Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used humour and ‘telling it like it is’ to refresh the parts that other politicians can’t reach. Nobody is saying that you can laugh your way to electoral success, but a joshing aside disarms and opens doors to help your poke your real message through.

An area where retail really can teach politicians a thing or two is its attitude to ‘new’. It’s the most powerful word in marketing and supermarkets and brands apply it liberally. Yet in political marketing, the emphasis can be on defending the core vote, so ‘new’ is sparingly used. It’s worth remembering that one of the most potent political forces of the past two decades was ‘New’ Labour, which won three majorities before its sheen started to come off.

Reacting in real time is another area that retailers have taken up as their own. Aldi’s reactive adverts that poked fun at Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s were two great examples of how swift action can leave competitors leaden footed. In some ways political operators are starting to notice this too. Look at the Tories attack ads with Ed Miliband as a puppet controlled by Nicola Sturgeon.

In a tight election with little room for elaborate promises, making the most of the smallest differences is a strength. With price wars entrenched, stores thank shoppers on their till receipts reminding them how much they’ve saved by shopping with them. Could politicians do something similar to show how their policies would make a difference?

There is an ongoing trend in the retail sector of decentralising powers to local stores. You need only look at local supermarket stores on Facebook, or the fact that GAME hands over all Twitter power to their store managers. Local engagement gets people’s attention because it shows you understand what matters to them. This is the complete opposite to how political parties work where the powerful central hand makes local communications weak.

If humble retailers teaching our political masters a few lessons seems a bit far-fetched, it is worth remembering that one of our most successful Prime Ministers was a grocer’s daughter. Retail is detail which means leaving no stone unturned in the search for advantage. That’s something that Mrs T understood instinctively.


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