From managing the message to simplifying the detail, there’s a lot we can learn

Politics Marketing

Just when you thought the Brexit nightmare couldn’t get any worse, we’re now heading into uncharted waters, as the 21 January and 29 March deadlines loom.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, France is burning, as the gilets jaunes wreak havoc and are already estimated to have cost the French economy €10 billion (£9bn/$11bn).

All through this political uncertainty I’ve been reflecting on how complex messages are best communicated, and how presentation is everything. From the Trump phenomenon in the US to Salvini in Italy, from Brexit to the yellow vests, it’s fascinating to watch the dynamics and see who’s getting heard and who’s not. And just why that is.

There are some common threads, and all of them can be applied to any marketing activity. Because let’s face it – these days, all politics is marketing. And here are some of the takeaways I’ve noted from the political shenanigans of the past few months and years:

  • Change is easy to sell, especially when it’s untested. So when Emmanuel Macron swept to power on a wave of popular enthusiasm, he promised a third way, breaking free from the eternal left-right choice that had confronted voters for decades. And when Leave campaigners talked about life outside the EU, the prospect seemed appealing to a large swathe of people who’d never known anything else.
  • Sooner or later, reality bites. It happened in France, and it’s happening here in the UK now. The promise of a bright new Gallic dawn has very quickly been superseded by a them vs. us confrontation that looks very much like every other standoff under previous governments. And in the UK, the practical difficulty of unpicking 45 years of coexistence is beginning to look almost insurmountable.
  • Simple messages gain traction. So when you promise that you’re going to take back control or deliver a jobs-first Brexit, people can get their head around it. The will of the people is another simple concept, until you start unpacking it and see that not all the people want the same thing. The People’s Vote is the latest killer message, but dig a little deeper and you see that most proponents can’t actually say what the people would be voting for. Would it be a re-run of the 2016 referendum? May’s deal or no deal? Stay in the EU or leave in any of several ways (which would split the leave vote)?
  • Detail can be dangerous. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t appear to have a plan at the moment, apart from toppling the Tories and provoking a general election. Whenever the Maybot (as she’s unkindly branded in the press) tries to pin him down, he dodges the question. The reason isn’t hard to see: the devil is always in the detail, and sometimes, less is more. Because more is never more: it’s usually simply too much. “Of course I haven’t read it,” said one politician recently of the 585-page EU withdrawal agreement. Really? If our elected representatives don’t do detail, how can we be expected to?
  • People don’t make rational choices, but emotional ones. This why simple messages and pared-down detail actually work. Because faced with a complicated choice with endless permutations (EEA? WTO? EFTA? Freedom of movement? Single market? Customs union?) people fall back on instinct. And that’s largely based on emotion and storytelling. How do I feel? What sort of person am I, and what values do I have? What’s the ‘right thing to do’? (That one is particularly subjective, though we humans all like to think it’s objective.) So whether you’re marketing a third way or a new beginning, it’s best to appeal to people’s emotions.
  • Fatigue can very quickly set in. This is why they always say that new leaders should get as much as possible done in their first 100 days in office. Benefitting from the honeymoon period, they can push through legislation, make sweeping changes (not necessarily the ones they promised, though) and upset the established order. Once the initial euphoria passes, that’s much more difficult. Italy’s populist (another much-used and much-abused term) government has discovered the harsh reality that ‘to govern is to choose’ as they’re faced with some difficult choices. Ditto for don’t-call-me-Manu, who’s looking increasingly beleaguered in the gilded splendour of the Elysée Palace.

As the political world is turned upside down by endless change, it’s instructive to see how some of the best communications professionals public money can buy are managing the message and controlling the conversation. Or more often than not, going into damage-control mode to limit the negative consequences.

For us marketers, there are lessons to be learned. Because there, but for the grace of the ballot box, go we.

Have a very Merry Christmas.

As for a Happy New Year, I think it’s a bit early to say if that’s a realistic wish. But we live in hope.