How Marketing (Nearly) Won the Day for Shorten’s ALP

Bill Shorten happy with election result

Most people will agree that the Coalition were comprehensively out-campaigned by the ALP in this last election. What was surprising to many, however, was the closeness of the result. Whilst the lead-up polls indicated a close result, many experienced commentators were still surprised by how near we actually came to a change of government.

After all, the Coalition went into the campaign holding all the cards. They had been buoyed by a resurgence in support after the deeply unpopular Abbott was ousted by Turnbull. The ALP was dealing with the aftershocks of the Royal Commission into the trade union movement, and Shorten was widely panned as an uninspiring, insipid character.

The “swinging voter” phenomenon

In my view, the reason why the ALP was able to come so close to victory off such a low base of support is largely due to one thing: they marketed themselves much more cleverly to the swinging voter during the campaign.

The swinging voter is described (somewhat harshly) in Stephen Mills’ book The New Machine Men as being “…basically ignorant and indifferent about politics. They vote on instinct for superficial, ill-informed and generally selfish reasons”. Many, I believe, are also disaffected with the political process and more easily swayed by negative messages than positive ones.

Estimates on the number of voters that fit this description vary, but the consensus is that they comprise an ever-increasing proportion of the electorate, with some academics estimating they make up 40% of all voters. One thing is clear: swinging voters can and do decide most elections nowadays, and campaign messages must be tailored to appeal to them.

The campaigns

Under Turnbull’s leadership, the Coalition chose to ignore the reality of this statement. As reported in the Courier-Mail after the election, Turnbull had an arsenal of attack ads available to him, but chose not to use them because he “believed [the Coalition] could win without them”. Instead, in an apparent attempt to pursue his oft-stated goal of improving the standards of political discourse, he ran “softer” campaign messages that failed to achieve cut-through.

Shorten’s ALP, on the other hand, had no such qualms. Their campaign team ran an outstanding campaign in marketing terms, focusing on key areas of perceived weakness in the Coalition’s position: Turnbull’s personal wealth (hello Tall Poppy Syndrome), mooted changes to Medicare, Turnbull’s thought bubble on increasing the GST to 15%, etc.

All of their advertising was bang on message, and it resonated strongly with swinging voters.

There were also clear differences in execution. The Coalition’s TV ads were excruciatingly bad, from the #faketradie debacle to Turnbull’s horribly uncomfortable “office walk” ad in the last couple of weeks. In the latter, Turnbull’s awkward hand movements and fumbling delivery of his lines made it seem as though Turnbull himself didn’t believe what he was saying. The ALP’s ads, on the other hand, were much more accessible and polished, and when they did show footage of Shorten his presence was much more comfortable and believable.

Lessons for business

In the modern world there are a number of parallels between election campaigns and business marketing. Here are two key ones.

  1. By poorly crafting their messages and producing woefully ineffective advertisements, the Coalition failed to achieve cut-through in what was a very noisy election campaign. In business the same principle applies: unless you create strong, marketable messages that your whole business lives and breathes, you will fail to achieve a strong presence in your industry.
  2. Today’s success can be fleeting: you must continually devise new and better ways to give your market what it wants, or it will quickly move to a competitor that does it better. Never rest on your laurels thinking you’ve “made it”.

Happy hunting.

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