The business of politics – and the politics of business

Marketing lessons we can learn from politicians

It’s only a few short months since I was quietly admiring the political skill of David Cameron, after reading a biography by Lord Ashcroft.

Fast-forward and Cameron has disappeared off the radar, his political career engulfed by the Brexit storm.

He’s out of Number 10, and will soon be leaving the green benches of Parliament to head into early retirement or a lucrative career in the private sector (becoming what the French charmingly call a pantouflard – a ‘slipper-wearer’, a reference to how cushy a politician’s life is when they make a seamless transition to the business world).

His fall from grace set me thinking about how politicians are like brands, with their success often owing more to marketing and clever PR than any objective differentiation. 

So how do today’s crop of politicians shape up as brands? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And what can we learn from how these animals operate in the political jungle?

Let’s see.

The challenger brand

This is a great position to be in: you simply take pot-shots at the market leader or the incumbent leader, immediately putting them on the defensive. You’re the new broom, and sweeping is high on your agenda.

Donald Trump is a challenger brand, with a deep war chest that he’s not afraid to break open to gain market share. He’s riding high on a wave of anti-establishment resentment. 

But this position by definition doesn’t last if it works.

When you overtake your rivals, or you get elected, you now have a target on your back, and you’d better come up with the goods. Just look at what happened to Nick Clegg in the UK, and you’ll see what The Donald has to look forward to if he heads down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The brand you know and trust

Hillary Clinton is part of the establishment Trump is hitting out at, so she has to turn that necessity into a virtue.

Though the Clinton brand is instantly recognisable, it’s not without political baggage – containing the notorious dress of ‘that woman’, among other things.

But as a Washington insider, she can confidently play the ‘voice of experience’ card. She regularly asks who voters would choose to have their finger hovering above the nuclear button. (Personally, I’d have a hard time trusting any politician, of any stripe, past or present, with their finger anywhere near it.)

Clearly, having been close to the heart of power for many years, her message is that she’s the safer, more predictable, more stable choice.

It’s important to remember here that people often vote not for a candidate but against another (cast your mind back to Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002). 

Commercial brands often make the mistake of thinking their marketing message exists in a vacuum – but it doesn’t.

Just like Hillary and Donald, they’re put in a lineup and compared and contrasted. So you’re judged not just on your own merits, but on your relative merits when you’re standing next to your competitors.

The non-stick brand

Just eight years ago, Barack Obama couldn’t put a foot wrong. He was the ultimate in cool brands – the Apple of politics. 

But he hasn’t closed Guantanamo, Obamacare still raises hackles across the US, and his inability to get legislation through (especially in the last two years, with the Republicans controlling both houses of congress) all mean he’s leaving if not under a cloud, then at least with less than blue skies.

But he’s managed the message well, and is an unparalleled speaker. He forms instant connections with people, and is not afraid to let his human side show. He does gravitas perfectly, but balances it brilliantly with levity and good humour.

Eight years on, and he’s still the coolest political brand – internationally, it not domestically. 

The anti-brand

In a world of 24-hour news cycles, constant spin and managed messages, refusing to play the game can often work in your favour.

Teresa May is the ultimate safe pair of hands. She adopted a low-key strategy during the referendum campaign, and avoided the cut-and-thrust of the power struggle that followed David Cameron’s departure. She then stepped in as the compromise candidate, and preached a story of reconciliation and harmony. 

It was brilliantly played – if, in fact, she was playing. Of course with politicians you can never tell, but she’s either sincere or fakes it very convincingly.

May is returning to a low-key style of leadership out of the media spotlight. She says she’s ‘just getting on with the job’ – a phrase that was much used and abused by predecessors, but one which she actually appears to be putting into practice.

Virtual reality

In the end, what matters in business as in politics is presentation, credibility, and the subtle interplay between the two.

It’s a well-worn cliché that you create your own reality, but when it comes to political campaigns, it goes even further – creating other people’s reality.

In marketing as in life, there is no absolute truth. You only have to look at the below-the-line comments on some newspaper sites (The Guardian is the frontline of the Brexit battlefield) to see how implacably opposed the pro and anti sides are. And how neither will cede an inch in the ongoing struggle for the moral high ground.

You can’t win all of the people all of the time – so you shouldn’t even try. Instead, much like the politicians, you should play to your strengths and play up the competition’s weaknesses.

It doesn’t much matter what the product is – it’s how you market it that counts. And we can learn a lot from politicians when we look at how they’ve sold their political messages, and positioned themselves over recent years.

And yes – even from The Donald.