How should brands react to May’s new party-political battle cry?

By Oliver Pink

18th April 2017

Taking a stand on issues is one thing. But brands should take care not to alienate themselves, particularly in precarious political times. Oliver Pink cautions businesses against risking too much in the upcoming snap election.

 

What’s happening in Westminster?

If Theresa May was truly a Spitting Image puppet – as many of us have puckishly speculated since her rise to power – somebody has certainly been operating the levers with a great deal more vigour over the past few weeks.

Today, in what can only be described as knee-jerk politics, the Prime Minister announced she will be calling a snap General Election on June 8th—little over eight weeks away and, fittingly, almost exactly one year following the UK’s shock decision to exit the European Union.

Her speech was only mildly less belligerent than a Trump battle cry: accusing other political parties of “game playing” and attempting to “grind the business of government to a standstill”.

There can be no doubt that the odds are stacked in favour of Mrs. May, such is the shambles of the Opposition (she may in fact even win some votes from disgruntled Labour MPs looking to oust their leader).

But, the Conservatives would be foolish to rest on their laurels.

With most of its Government pushing for a deal-or-no-deal hard Brexit; the Labour party largely ambivalent or – at the very least – incoherent on the matter and the population still angry and divided… this very short saga is likely to play out as closely to the ‘second referendum’ so craved by many ‘Remoaners’ as could be politically feasible.

Indeed, most other parties have since responded through this lens, universally ‘welcoming’ the decision. So far, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has most powerfully used the platform as a call to arms for all Remainers to get their own back. Paul Nuttall, clearly misunderstanding electoral poker, released a statement claiming that ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for a clean Brexit’—exactly as Mrs May has promised.

In short, while we will be technically voting on which party will hold government, most of the campaign rhetoric is set to remain closer to the question of whether or not Britain made a huge and bloody mess of things the previous year.

 

Who I am and who I am not

A controversial hard-line candidate on one side; a flimsy, mistrusted but generally more pleasant one on the other. Where have we seen this before?

Traditional voter bases for both Labour and the Conservatives have been torn up since the 2016 referendum. What does the Tory Remainer do when told by the leader of their own party to vote for “a smooth Brexit”? How about the Blairite Labour voter who can’t abide the idea of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street?

Polls be damned, psychology is more likely to tell us which way votes will be cast. As behavioural economists will tell you, when people aren’t given the opportunity to behave in a way that reflects their identity, they start to make decisions based on avoiding the worst option rather than betting on what they think will be the best.

In other words ‘who I am not’ (i.e. someone who would ever vote Tory) becomes a much more important question than ‘who I am’ (i.e. a staunch Eurosceptic).

“My father summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘Nobody in our family has ever voted Conservative without a stiff drink. Before, and afterwards.’”—David Owen.

The latest polls, encouraging as they are for a prime minister in search of a larger majority, are famously unreliable—this election holds potential for a political earthquake with a magnitude yet unforeseen by May or Corbyn, as people find they are able to vote for some cleverly-positioned smaller parties without completely abandoning their own belief system.

 

Comms in election season: a commercial minefield

With ever-decreasing editorial teams in media houses across the land, the likelihood that brands will get a word in edgeways over the next two months is shallow. Unless, that is, they decide themselves to weigh in on the politics of the day.

To them I would say the words ‘be’ and, also, ‘careful’.

The worlds of brand and politics rarely mix well in the public eye. Just ask Mrs. May herself. Unlike many of her Tory fellows, she is famously unopposed to poking her government’s nose into the business of businesses or brands.

If nothing else, May will surely go down in history as the only PM who took a short break from peddling arms to Saudi Arabia to admonish Cadbury’s over its decision to drop the word ‘Easter’ from its annual egg hunt.

This was met with widespread ridicule, demonstrating crisply how cynical the electorate can be about these two institutions colliding.

It was only late last year that Lego proudly announced it was pulling its media spend from the Daily Mail and Kellogg’s publicly argued that its brand values did not match those of Breitbart, a right-wing online newspaper. Both of these politically-fuelled decisions were met with debate at best and derision at worst.

That’s not to say that brands should remain mute, or blithely continue on as if the country wasn’t in political purgatory. Where brand activity during election works is where it is cleverly non-partisan. Finding new ways of encouraging people to vote is one popular option, seen most recently by Patagonia in the United States, which closed all its stores on Election Day hoping that by giving its 2,000 employees the day off, they will encourage others to ‘head to the polls’ and vote.

(It’s worth saying that even though it didn’t endorse any candidate or party, Patagonia couldn’t resist a swipe at presidential candidate Trump. “During a time of catastrophic environmental crisis, when America needs strong leadership to confront the fundamental threat of climate change, voter turnout threatens to reach historic lows as people are turned off by the ugliness of politics,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in a statement.)

A New York marketing tech company, Percolate, wrote last year about how clever media buying during elections could help strengthen commercial messages (and, how sloppy planning could weaken it). It gives the example of the Netflix’s House of Cards commercial that aired during the December 16th CNN debate. “The choice to market a fictional political show to an audience already engaged with politics,” it said, “demonstrates a brand’s ability to capitalize on the shift in audience engagement.”

Over here, in the innocent days of the 2015 General Election, many brands were permitted to have a little fun. DIY retailer B&Q made the leaders of the seven main parties into gnomes. Smirnoff ran with the tagline: Left wing, right wing, or chicken wings. We’re open.’ Cake brand, Mr Kipling mimicked the famous Saatchi and Saatchi ad for the Tories with a campaign entitled ‘Biscuits aren’t working’.

Two years on, we’re in graver times. While campaigning for democracy will rarely upset a divided but passionate electorate, brands and businesses do need to read the room before they act.

This fight will be dirty. We need the commercial world, at least, to keep its hands clean.