The consensus amongst political commentators is that the campaign delivered by the Conservatives; sorry, Theresa May’s team; at the 2017 general election was a complete disaster. At the beginning of the election’s long campaign, the polls gave the Tories a massive lead over Labour. Theresa May’s approval rating as Prime Minister soared above other part leaders. The election looked like it would be a landslide win for the Conservatives; the parliamentary Labour Party would be decimated; and Mrs May would get her mandate to deliver a hard Brexit.
Now, following her cataclysmic campaign, Theresa May’s dreams are dust. She has been transformed from a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher into a creature of ridicule. She has lost all credibility. She is a zombie prime minister awaiting the delivery of a blade to her political cerebral cortex. It is only a question as to which of her backbenchers delivers the blow.
So how did May’s campaign disintegrate so spectacularly? Many have pointed to her robotic and awkward delivery, her inability to think on her feet and her unwillingness to actually meet the electorate. It is true that an attempt to run a campaign based on personality when your candidate doesn’t appear to have one is a major mistake. Certainly a significant proportion of the UK population were confused by the campaign’s presidential style. However, I believe a far greater flaw was that those running the campaign had clearly ignored the lessons in marketing strategy and brand management which Mrs May’s predecessors had successfully used to win elections.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, the presentation of political campaigns was staid and boring. it was men in grey suits, sitting in sepia clad television studios, arguing about economic statistics. All that changed in 1979 with the general election campaign of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady had employed Gordon Reece as her image consultant to ensure that she projected an appropriate personality to the electorate. for the campaign itself she went outside her party machine and employed the advertising and marketing firm Saatchi and Saatchi to run the campaign. The principles of commercial marketing and PR were applied to the campaign. It was politics packaged like a tin of beans.
Many may think of Mrs Thatcher winning several successful landslide majorities
Mrs Thatcher’s successors took things further; Tony Blair in particular. Blair clearly applied techniques used in Neuro-linguistic Programming such as the subtle use of repetitive phrases and mirroring body language of his inquisitors. Blair used prominent slogans, such as ‘Education, Education, education’ but was also evident in his interviews and speeches were more subtle phrases and nuanced language designed to enter the subconscious of voters and make them act in a particular way.
I suspect Theresa May had been told of Blair’s neuro-linguistic tactics and tried to emulate them but her ability to execute them was sadly lacking. Just repeating the same phrase over and over may get your message across but such overt declarations are will more likely bore your audience than affect their behaviour.
Perhaps the biggest fault in the Conservatives 2017 campaign was that it took an extremely old-fashioned view of promoting a brand.
The traditional view of a brand image is the creation of a solid identity. To build this identity, it was felt that regular repetition of key attribute was required. Sameness would build brand equity. This was done to excess by Mrs May and it was the repetition of a single phrase ‘Strong and Stable’. To Tory campaign managers ears this may have sounded perfect; the brand identity boiled down to three words. The electorate however clearly read this message differently. To them it signalled not stability but a lack of adaptability, no fleetness of foot and a political ideology with its feet planted firmly in concrete boots. The electorate clearly didn’t want a government determined to stick to its right-wing guns; it wanted a government with the ability to change in the face of a turbulent political climate.
The torpedo which sunk HMS Theresa May was her policy of using pensioners property equity to pay for their social care. This policy directly attacked the Conservatives target audience, the over-50s. Clearly, the unpopularity of the policy panicked Tory central office and the subsequent U-turn completely destroyed the single brand message of Strong and stable. Such a U-turn wasn’t strong and stable, it was weak and wobbly.
A more modern view of developing a brand is to treat it as having two layers of attributes. Kernel attributes at its core and peripheral attributes. This view is to address a dichotomy in brand presentation. Brands need a solid identity to provide capital but in modern markets, where consumers are impulsive and used to rapid change, a brand must have the ability to surprise and have diversity.
A brand which only has kernel attributes may have power but it will lack relevance in the minds of the intended audience. A brand with only peripheral attributes may be relevant to the target audience but it will lack the necessary power.
The modern view of creating a brand with kernel attributes to provide solidity but also peripheral attributes which can be adapted to meet the variety expected by modern consumers.
This is where Theresa May’s campaign failed spectacularly. It had a kernel attribute ‘Strong and stable’ but it had no peripheral attributes. The campaign was based almost exclusively on Mrs May. The rest of her party hardly got a look in. So when that kernel attribute was blown out of the water by the social care U-turn, the campaign was left as a hollow shell. If Mrs May had run a more diverse campaign, with more than a single attribute, she may have been able to ride out the social care fiasco and retain her majority.