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Marketing Strategies of UK Political Parties

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Published: Thu, 22 Feb 2018

In this paper we examine the use of political marketing in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It focuses on the hypothetical theoretical aspects of marketing frameworks, which are identified and applying these frameworks to the marketing strategies of the political parties within the UK and the US. Additionally, we compare and contrast certain aspects of the marketing frameworks that have been identified with the parties, analysing whether the use of the frameworks are inherently present with regard to their electioneering and campaigning strategies.

Political marketing has come to be an increasingly exciting and integrated phenomenon that the majority of significant public figures and political employees are vividly aware of. It holds the potential to transform politics as we know it, and exert a tremendous influence on the way everyone’s life is run, but we will only ever reach a greater understanding of the existing and potential consequences of political marketing if we acknowledge and accept the breadth and nature of the phenomenon. The reason why marketing can be attached to politics is that in essence they share some common tenets: the aim to understand how political organisations act in relation to their market and vice versa. Furthermore, marketing, being somewhat more prescriptive, provides tools and ideas about how organisations could behave in relation to their market in order to set aims and objectives, so that at the end they can achieve their goals. It can help an organisation understand the demands of its market. The idea of a political system that meets people’s needs and demands links back to traditional politics: Jones and Moran (1994, 17) argue that British democracy means that the people can decide the government and exercise influence over the decisions governments take. Political marketing is simply a way of doing this in the 21st century with a critical, well informed and consumerist mass franchise.

The evidence suggests that major British parties are not just applying the techniques of marketing, but its concepts. They appear to be determining their policies to match voters concerns (using findings from survey research and focus groups) rather than basing them on ideological considerations. Therefore, they are attempting to become what is known in business terms as ‘market oriented’ and designing their ‘product’ to suit consumer demands. This would imply a new role for political parties, one at odds with the traditional role assumed by the standard literature. It may also cause potential problems for political parties in the long-term, as well as having significant normative implications for politics as a whole.

This paper therefore explores the full potential of political marketing on a theoretical level integrating management, marketing and political science literature to find out how British political parties and the US political parties have used marketing and become market-oriented. It will examine the extent to which the ‘New Labour Party’ in 1997 exhibited behaviour in line with this model and comparing this with the Conservatives in 1979. We would also consider its use in the US by the Republican and Democratic political party and how it has affected the political landscape. It will be seen how the Conservative party used marketing to inform policy design, a model which ‘New Labour’ followed but to a greater extent, using results from market intelligence to push for changes to the role of the memberships and further centralisation of power to ensure a clear organisational structure within the party. In more recent times, the endorsement of George W. Bush (jnr), by the Republican Party in the US and how the product, i.e. his behaviour over the election period leading up to his election win was galvanised through political marketing. It is hoped that this paper will highlight how the implications of political marketing are much wider than at first sort.

Marketing is a form of management or method used primarily by business organisations. It has evolved to include the design and promotion of a product to ensure that the goals of the organisation, the prime one being to make profit in the case of a business, are met. It is not just about selling, or in this case campaigning. As Levitt (1960: 50) argues, that the difference between marketing and selling is more than dynamic. Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing focuses on the need of the buyer. The current marketing philosophy focuses on how firms can satisfy customers wants, and adopt what is called a market-oriented approach as this is deemed the most effective way to meet the firms goals Drucker (1954:37). Cannon (1996:6) found that with business organisations the idea that firms exist, first and foremost, to satisfy customer’s needs has not been accommodated easily into the operations of many organisations. It is likely in this case, to be even more difficult with a political party, which is bound to consist of many ideas and attitudes to how the party as a whole should behave, not the least, different theories of the meaning of democracy and the role of the elites.

Kotler and Andreasen (1987:505), suggest that everything about an organisation, which includes, its products, employee’s facilities, and actions, all communicate something to the general public. Not only the nature of the leader, but also the behaviour and rights of the party’s member’s could be influential in attracting or repelling voters. As Shaw (1994:175) puts it, the British Labour party failed to win the 1992 general election because (amongst other factors), despite changes in policy, the then leader of the party, lacked the time and support to transform the party itself, a fatal weakness, since the character and behaviour of its activists at the time, its ethos, language and rituals, and most importantly, its close association with the trade unions, all alienated the electorate. A party with the wrong approach to gain the attention of the voting electorate is more likely to fail. As Scullion and Dermody (2004:361), argues that the campaigns employed by the political parties were being accused of failing to engage a disinterested young electorate.

In their comparison of New Labour (UK) and New Democrats (US), Ingram and Lees-Marshment (2002:5), state that systemic differences between the countries, the UK and US, substantially condition the scope, focus, and application of political marketing and although American campaigns maybe the breeding ground for technological innovation and birth of political marketing, there is more potential for the use of political marketing in Britain, due to the more centralised nature of political parties and campaigns and to the component delivery of the marketing model. This article found that Labour’s approach was far broader in scope, influencing aspects of its policies, personnel, internal organisation, and leadership behaviour. One should also understand that the use of marketing as a tool for political gains is not a new thing. Eisenhower’s use of direct male in the early 50’s in the US, and in the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s use of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency (Scammell, 1994:23). However, there has been an increasing use of marketing methods in political campaigns over the latter part of the twentieth century (Smith and Saunders (1990: 295), Wring (1997:1131). To date the dominant paradigm has been to adapt consumer goods marketing ideas and frameworks (Baines and Egan, 2001:1), especially the marketing mix concept (Niffenegger, 1989:45). Other frameworks might provide a more fruitful basis for analysis. The broadening theory of marketing was based upon the notion that marketing ideas and techniques could be utilised whenever value is exchanged between two parties, e.g. charities, churches, and political parties, (Kotler and Levy, 1969:10). It was argued later that differences of form and content (Lock and Harris, 1996: 21), and structure and process (Butler and Collins, 1999:55) existed, and that value exchange was not so straightforward. Baines, Harris, and Newman (1999:1) additionally state that this commercial and political difference, when suggesting that political campaigns usually operate with shorter, more intense promotional campaigns, in oligopolistic markets, with polarised levels of voter loyalty, and differing potential for the degree of marketing orientation in different countries. It can be argued here that structural changes in the political landscape had an impact on the perceived need for adoption of marketing techniques. Voters are perceived to be less involved and less loyal than in the past (Ware, 1995: 6). This may partly be due to voter apathy, which is a growing trend in most western democracies. There are a number of factors that are central to the need for marketing in campaigns. They are lack of actual or perceived product differentiation; increasing numbers and frequency of electoral contests and referendum held, or simply because voters have more compelling distractions stimulated by increased wealth and leisure time. To cast ones vote was and is seen as less of a duty than was largely the case in the past. This is why marketing has evolved to be used as a way of demand intervention.

Marketing and political campaigning or vice-versa can be deemed as inseparable, because of its strategic importance to the outcome of any election. Such is the perceived value of marketing that no political party and few individual candidates would challenge the role marketing plays in the modern campaign and electoral process.

With all this in mind, this paper moves on to explore the full potential of political marketing on a theoretical level identifying the literature that a political party might use marketing and become market-orientated. It will examine the extent to which the Labour party in 1997, exhibited behaviour in line with this model and comparing this with the Conservative party in 1979. Additionally, the Republican party of the US would also be mentioned and examined with regard to correlations or differences between the use of this model, in the UK and the US between the political parties.

Therefore the remainder of this paper is set as follow:

  • Chapter 3: Theoretical concepts of Political Marketing
  • Chapter 4: Labour Party use of political marketing, 1997-2001
  • Chapter 5: Conservative Party use of political marketing, 1997-2001
  • Chapter 6: The use of political marketing in the US in comparison to the UK
  • Chapter 7: Summary and Conclusion
  • References and Bibliography.

Political parties use political marketing to determine their policies, organisation, communication and, ultimately, potential delivery in government. Political parties were traditionally perceived as bastions of ideology, dogma, idealism and rhetoric. In the twenty-first century, however, most if not all-political parties in the UK of varying ideologies, histories, sizes and fortunes are aware of political marketing. The extent to which they choose to use it, the form they adopt, and their success at adopting a market orientation may vary, but all understand the pressure from the political market to satisfy the general populace.

Depending on their nature, political parties can use marketing in various ways. Parties differ in their size and goals. Major parties are large, established organisations whose dominant goal is to win control of government, therefore to win a general (or devolved) election. The Conservative and Labour parties in the UK are major parties and so try to use political marketing to win an election. Their market consists of the electorate, in addition to anyone else who has influence on voters, although the parties do not need to win support from everyone to gain power. Their product includes all aspects of their behaviour. Although a major party generally asks political consumers to vote for it on the basis of what it promises to do in government, its policy promises or party manifesto which it lays out to the general electorate, voters also take into account other aspects of party behaviour such as leadership, party unity, organisation, and the behaviour of members, because these may affect the ability of the party to deliver on policy promises.

The current marketing philosophy focuses on how firms satisfy customers, and adopt what is called a market-orientation as this is deemed as the most effective way to meet the firm’s goals (Drucker, 1954:37). It can be argued here that if a political party implements the marketing philosophy, it will seek to meet voters needs and wants, thus producing voter satisfaction, and in doing so gain electoral support to meet its own goals.

Orientation is a concept that the major parties should adopt, which is based on an attitude towards how they behave in relation to the electorate. There are three main political marketing orientations (Lees-Marshment 2001:692). Market-oriented parties (MOPs) design their product, including policies, leadership and organisation, to suit what political consumers demand, in order to achieve their goal of winning a general election. This does not mean they simply follow what everyone wants to them to do, because this would be impossible anyway, because demands are complex and competing. Instead they need to go through a complex process of stages. This is shown in Box 3.1.

Box 3.1 The Process for a Market-Oriented Party

Stage 1: Market intelligence

Party finds out what voters need and want by:

• Keeping an ear to the ground, talking to activists, meeting the public;

• Using quantitative research (electoral results, public opinion polls and privately commissioned studies) and qualitative research such as a focus group.

Stage 2: Product design Party designs

behaviour (including leadership, members, policies, staff, constitution and symbols) according to voters’ demands.

Stage 3: Product adjustment

Party designs product to suit the electorate at large and then needs to make sure it considers other factors:

• Achievability, determine whether the product design is achievable;

• Internal reaction analysis, to alter design to ensure it will obtain the support of enough MPs and members to ensure its implementation;

• Competition analysis, this is to promote opposition weaknesses and highlight own strengths;

• Support analysis, this is with the view of focusing on winning the support of voters, it does not have, but needs to win.

Stage 4: Implementation

 The findings from stages 1 – 3, must be implemented. The majority must accept the new behaviour broadly. This requires effective and considerate organisation and management.

Stage5: Communication

This includes the so-called near-term or long-term campaign, but also ongoing behaviour. The party ensures that communication helps it achieve electoral success; attempts to influence others in the communication process, such as journalist and opposition parties; and uses selling techniques such as direct mail and targeted communications

Stage 6: Campaign

This can be said to be the final chance for the political party to communicate with the voters.

Stage 7: Election

The party goes through the election.

Stage 8: Delivery

The party carries out promises made once in government.

Box 3.2 The process for a Product-Oriented Party

Stage 1: Product design

The party designs its behaviour according to what it thinks best represents them.

Stage 2: Communication

This includes the so=called near-term or long-term campaign but also ongoing behaviour. Not just the leader, but all MPs and members, send a message to the electorate. The organisation is clear and effective; it is designed to advance arguments.

Stage 3: Campaign

The official election campaign period starts leading up to the election.

4: Election

The general election takes place.

Stage 5: Delivery on promises made during election as stated on the party’s election manifesto

The party will deliver its product in government.

Box 3.3 The Process for Sales – Oriented Party

Stage 1: Product design

The party designs its behaviour according to what it thinks best.

Stage 2: Market Intelligence

The party aims to discover voters’ response to the product, especially voters who do not support the party but might, so that communications can be targeted on them. Informally, it keeps an ear to the ground, talks to party members, creates policy groups and meets with the public. Formally, it uses quantitative research (electoral results, public opinion polls and privately commissioned studies) and qualitative research such as a focus group.

Stage 3: Communication

This includes the so-called near-term or long-term campaign but also ongoing behaviour. Not just the leader, but all MPs and members send a message to the electorate. Attempts are made to ensure all communication helps achieve electoral success, and to influence others in the communication process. The organisation is clear and effective designed to advance arguments. It also makes use of selling techniques such as direct mail and targeted communications to persuade voters to agree with the party.

Stage 4: Campaign

 The official election campaign period kicks in up until election. The party continues to communicate effectively as in stage 3.

 Stage 5: Election

The general election.

Stage 6: Delivery

The party will deliver its promised product in government.

Other parties with different goals may not choose to use political marketing in this way i.e. Box 3.1. However, if the dominant goal of a party is to advance a particular policy, rather than win an election, it maybe more product oriented. Product – Oriented parties (POPs) decide their behaviour or product themselves without much care for the opinions of political consumers, or rather, they assume that voters will realise that it is right and vote for it accordingly. Their process is quite simple: see Box 3.2.

A product – oriented party refuses to change its ideas or product even if it fails to gain electoral or membership support. If a party is a small or minor party, with the main goal being not to win a general election but to put ideas on the agenda, this may be the most appropriate political marketing orientation.

However, most party’s overtime, grow to be concerned about their performance. They may then move to a sales orientation position, retaining the same product or behaviour, but using political marketing communication techniques, see Box 3.3. Market intelligence is used not to inform the product design, but to help the party persuade voters it is right and has sound electoral policies. Sales-oriented parties are often perceived as the more manipulative, because they use marketing to persuade or change public opinion. Current research indicates that the trend in the UK, at least amongst the major political parties, is towards the market-oriented approach (Lees-Marshment 2001). The trend is to evolve from product through to sales and then finally a market orientation, responding to the gradual rise of the political consumer. Major party’s can however, win power using a market-orientation and then switch back to a sales or product once in power. Political parties often find it harder to remain in touch with the public and responsive to the demands of political consumers once they are in government. Other small UK parties tend to adopt any one of the three orientations. Parties such as the Scottish National Party have moved through the classic product-sales-market –oriented cycle.

The use of marketing by political parties is not as easy as the theory suggests. The latest research in political party marketing suggests that despite the desire of both the Conservative and Labour parties to adopt and maintain a market orientation, many obstacles get in the way. This will be fully explained in the following chapters.

The Labour party has been one of political marketing’s success stories of the new century, at least on the surface. Using political marketing to become more in touch with the public, reduce any unwanted historical baggage, and even relabelled itself as ‘New Labour’, it first became market oriented in order to win the previous election in 1997. It remains the fullest example of a market-oriented party, following the model to the greatest degree of any party ever seen. However, after obtaining the mandate of power from the UK electorate, the party met many obstacles to delivering on its 1997election promises. This is a major potential weakness: Labour support is very much based on promised outputs, so it needs to be seen to deliver. It is in the context that Labour attempted to maintain a market orientation and retain its electoral support during 1997 – 2001.

Table 4.1 The Labour government and Delivery, February 2000

‘There is a lot of talk at the moment about whether the present government is or is not ‘delivering’. From what you know, do you think that it is or is not delivering on each of the following?

Source: Gallup Political Index

Delivery in government on the 1997 election promises

Delivering the political product as stated previously is not an easy task. It is one of unanswered potential conundrums at the heart of political marketing (Laing and Lees-Marshment, 2002:19). The Labour party understood this. The party talked constantly about the need to deliver. It copied business and started to issue an annual report on its delivery of its promises (Labour Party 1999: 3-7, 2000). Labour undoubtly succeeded in some areas, such as constitutional reform, with the introduction of devolution in Scotland and Wales and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. However, Labour failed to convince many voters that it had made real improvement to standards in the public services, which is the core part of the 1997 product. Public resentment about Labour’s failures to deliver grew, Table 4.1, gives you the evidence.

There was also dissatisfaction with the Labour party. A report from the Labour party itself based on its private polls leaked in the independent warning that the party’s huge lead in the opinion polls masks the fact that people are turning against the Government because they believe it is failing to deliver its 1997 general election party manifesto. In July 2000 a MORI survey indicated that 57% of respondents did not think the leader of the Labour Party had kept the parties election promises. See the following table:

Table 4.2 Perceived performance of the prime minister, July 2000

Since becoming prime minister in May 1997, do you think, Tony Blair has or has not delivered election promises made in the party’s election manifesto?

Source: MORI telephone survey 20-22, July 2000

Labour therefore still needed to utilise political marketing, but this time to maintain rather than win support.

Stage 1: Market Intelligence

The Labour party conducted substantial market intelligence. Philip Gould conducted focus group work for the party; Greg Crook ran a rolling programme of opinion polling (Cook, 2002:87); the party’s advertising agency, TVWA London, also conducted research (Lawther, 2002:1). Labour also analysed results of elections to local authorities, the devolved institutions, the European parliament and parliamentary by-elections (Cook, 2002:88). It took account of negative criticism despite the overall positive polls and continued to monitor the performance of the opposition. During 1997 – 2001 Labour continually discussed voters’ needs.

Stage 2: Product design

The New Labour product offered to the electorate in 2001 was extremely similar to that offered in 1997, with greater determination to deliver in the second term. Policy: In terms of policy, the focus remained on raising standards in the public services, such as health and education. The party retained its commitment to low income tax and competent economic management. There were slight changes in terms of greater investment in public services in order to improve them, but such moves were made without a call o increase tax. Stephen Lawther, polling coordinator for the Scottish Labour Party, argued that Labour put forward a strong product:

• Minimum wage;

• 1 million new jobs;

• Lowest unemployment in 25 years;

• Lowest inflation in 30 years;

• Winter fuel allowance;

 • Record investment in schools in hospitals;

• Small class sizes;

• A nursery place for every 4 year old;

• 10,000 more nurses in the NHS;

• Working families’ tax credit reduction;

• Scottish parliament (devolution), (Lawther, 2002).

Leadership: As leader, the prime minister continued to exercise strong and determined control over his party and the senior leadership and cabinet in particular. The prime minister enjoyed extremely high popularity scores in public opinion polls until the end of the 1997-2002 periods, when he began to attract criticism for being smarmy, arrogant and out of touch with the national electorate. In June 2000, the prime minister was even slow-hand-clapped by the Women’s Institute.

Internal membership: Changes were made within the party with the aim of making members more involved (Seyd 1999:390-391). Members-only sessions were introduced at the annual party conference, to ensure members had a chance to air their views without damaging the party externally. Partnership in power, a series of proposals to change certain organisational structures within the party, devolved policy-making to the National Policy Forum to provide greater consultation with the membership. Nevertheless, party membership slumped from 420,000 after 1997 election to just 320,000 by mid-1999. Many of those who remained were de-energised (Seyd and Whiteley, 1999). This reflects the limited application of marketing to the membership, (Lees-Marshment, 2001a). The foundations of Labour’s support have been eroded, making it even more crucial that the party satisfy voters through delivery on public services.

Party Unity: The leadership exerted significant control over the party’s participation within the new devolved institutions in the selection of the leadership candidate for the Welsh assembly, which aroused significant discontent among Labour party activists. Another case was the election for the London mayor. After failing to be selected as the Labour candidate, an old left-winger, Ken Livingston, stood as an independent after calls from the public to do so, and won. This was an indication of the discontent at the grassroots of the Labour party: an issue that Labour continues to struggle with, due to its use of political marketing.

Stage 3: Product Adjustment Achievability: Learning in government that delivering on the 1997 pledges, particularly those about the quality of public services, was extremely difficult, the party made promises for the next term of office in terms of inputs rather than outputs, such as ‘x number of nurses or police’ rather than reduce waiting list or lower levels of crime. Inputs are easier to deliver because they are easier to control (Lees-Marshment and Laing, 2002:20). The 2001 pledges were:

• Mortgages to be as low as possible, low inflation and sound public finances;

• 10,000 extra teachers and higher standards in secondary schools;

• 20,000 extra nurses and 10,000 extra doctors in a reformed NHS;

• 6,000 extra recruits to raise police numbers to their highest ever level;

• Pensioners’ winter fuel payment retained, minimum wage rising to £4.20, and most recently to £5.25 an hour.

Internal reaction analysis: The decline in membership that Labour experienced after 1997 suggests failure of internal reaction analysis. The new system of policy-making was criticised for restricting the opportunity for debate at conference and ignoring the work of policy forums (Seyd, 2002:95). The selection processes used for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and London mayor also indicated a lack of internal reaction analysis and generated further discontent.

Competition analysis: Labour engaged in a significant competition analysis in terms of its planning for the campaign. It was keen that voters would see the election as a choice between the parties rather than a referendum on Labour’s mixed record of delivery (Gould, 2002:57, Lawther, 2002:1). Posters reassured voters about the party, saying, ‘Thanks for voting Labour’, but also reminding them of potential problems the Conservatives might bring, with posters headed ‘Economic Disaster II).

Support analysis: Labour analysed voters who were former Conservatives that had defected to the party in 1997, and found that this group would stay with the party. Attention then shifted to mobilising people to vote, as the party feared it could lose support due to a low turnout. Labour played on the emotion of fear at a prospective Tory victory, commissioning the famous ‘wiggy’ poster of the then leader of the Conservative party, warning ‘Get out and vote or they get in’. It tried to put forward the vision that the work goes on and voters needed to give the party more time.

Stage 4: Implementation

The leader of the Labour party insisted on strict party unity: i.e. all ministers had to agree any interaction with the media and the press office of the Labour party, to ensure unified communication from government. The party’s leader had a few difficulties passing legislation. And ambitious MPs knew they had to keep in line with the leadership if they wished to advance their careers. Blair (the leader of the Labour Party) followed the market-oriented party model to fine detail, promoting those who followed the product design and sidelining those who voiced dissent. Nevertheless Labour was criticised for being too ‘Control Conscious’.

Stage 5: Communication

Labour continued to control communication from the party and also central government. The Government Information Service was used to communicate the government’s message and delivery (Scammell, 2001). Government spending on advertising increased massively in the four years between 1997 and 2001 (Grice, 2001). Party communication was also focused on delivery: party political broad casts during the elections to the European parliament, for example, focused on the government’s achievements, rather than European issues. Communication did not succeed in convincing voters that the government had delivered as initially thought.

Stage 6: Campaign

The character of the party’s product and its delivery performance in office determined Labour’s campaign. It focused on the need to deliver, asking for more time to do its job. Labour used target marketing and campaigned most heavily in marginal seats where it was assumed that its efforts would have the greatest effect (Cook, 2002:87). In Scotland Labour sent out targeted direct mail in the form of a letter from both the leader of the party and the deputy leader to segments of the market such as Scottish National Party (SNP) floaters, and Labour also ran health rallies and a pledge day to reinforce key themes. The campaign was closely co-ordinated from the party’s Millbank headquarters, with an integrated marketing communications structure. Responding to market intelligence, significant effort went into getting the vote out, through ‘Operation Turnout’. This assessed the party identification and voting history of electors in target seats and sent a direct marketing message to them to get them to vote (Lawther, 2002). Nevertheless, the underlying public dissatisfaction with public services was brought to the fore when Blair was accosted by the partner of a patient complaining about the poor standards of care in the NHS in a di


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