With New Zealand’s General Election only a few months away, the marketing campaigns for the main parties are gearing up. Political marketing experts share what to expect from this year’s campaigns, and what those in the business world can learn from their political counterparts about marketing strategy.
Less focus on awards, more focus on results. That’s the advice from Topham Guerin co-founder Ben Guerin, when asked what the corporate world can learn from political campaigns such as this year’s New Zealand General Election (October 14). The creative agency has not only worked on previous campaigns with the National Party, the Liberals in Australia and the Conservatives in the UK, but also has a roster of high-profile corporate clients such as Lloyds Bank and Rio Tinto.
“The story of Topham Guerin is how you can break new ground in the world of politics and take those lessons to the corporate world,” Ben says from the company’s London office. “A political campaign is a hub for innovation. Whether you’re talking Obama 2008, or Boris Johnson doing a ‘Love Actually’ remake in 2019 with yours truly, the focus and drive of a political campaign, combined with a really clear end goal in mind, actually helps you to achieve things that wouldn’t be possible in a traditionally always-on sales cycle.”
Another feature of a political campaign is it has to be results-focused, he says.
“We’ve got a real issue in our industry with putting people up on pedestals because of awards they’ve won and what they’ve done in the past and think everything they say is gospel. In politics you have a clear winner and clear loser, so you can understand the connection between the campaign and the end result. Topham Guerin has never won an award for its political work, but I can tell you this: we’ve won plenty of elections.”
Whoever does win this year’s election, Ben says they will need to tackle the issue of cost-of-living. We are far from alone in this; he says it is also a massive issue over in the UK. “For brands that we work with like Lloyds Bank, people have serious money concerns right now, so if you’re a bank, you need to be able to be empathetic in your communications with really helpful advice, and there’s an opportunity to build really strong relationships with your audience. It’s also an opportunity to burn those bridges if you are not careful, and the same applies to politics.”
Kelly Bennett, Managing Director of OnePlusOne Communications, also sees the cost-of-living debate as “the primary battleground issue” for this election, after the Covid-focused 2020 election where Labour secured a historic first single-party Parliamentary majority under MMP. “Interest rates, inflation, wages and the economy – all of those issues will become really, really important,” he says.
However, Kelly says both major parties need some work on their messaging. “I think Labour needs to revisit their “Let’s Keep Moving” message, which is front and centre on their website. It suited what they were doing last election, but it certainly doesn’t any more, so it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with to replace it.”
NZ Marketing magazine understands Hunch and Augusto will again be working with Labour this election, although neither would go on the record.
Kelly is also underwhelmed by National’s “Get New Zealand back on track” slogan. “It’s a bit wishy-washy,” he says. “If you go on the National website there’s more than a dozen policies, and frankly I don’t know what they stand for. They need to articulate really simply what you get if you vote National as opposed to Labour, which to be fair they’re getting better and better at as the weeks unfold.”
Kelly says the central challenge for National is for leader Christopher Luxon to connect more authentically, more transparently, and make himself more palatable to everyday Kiwis. “Less robot, more real dude, if you will.” He also says Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has done a good job putting unpopular Labour policies “on the bonfire” in the lead-up to the election. “The success or failure of the two main parties will be predicated on how the two leaders can connect to everyday Kiws. At the moment I think it’s Chippy, by a small margin.”
With Luxon recently ruling out going into a coalition with the Maori Party, Kelly says there looks to be a clear choice between Labour/Greens/Maori Party on the left and National/Act (and possibly New Zealand First) on the right.
“I think Act is set to do pretty well in this election. That’s based on a hunch and their performance last time. David Seymour is without doubt a savvy operator; when you talk about pithy soundbites, that’s an enormous strength of his, so I can’t see them slipping back, in fact I can only see them growing in popularity.”
Dr Edward Elder, a political communications expert from the University of Auckland, also expects a strong performance from Act, which jumped from only one MP to 10 at the 2020 election.
“I spoke to David Seymour after the 2017 election when they had done really badly, and he said, to use the analogy of a store, people would like what we’re selling but they don’t come into the shop, because they don’t like the signage. The product was good but the branding was terrible,” he says.
“What they really changed more than anything else is the broader brand they offered, they went from basically just the tax party to the freedom party. That’s where they brought in some of those disgruntled NZ First voters, they are the new anti-establishment party.”
With Act muscling in on his territory, Winston Peters has “leaned more into fringe elements to compensate”, Edward says. “As an example, visiting the protestors at Parliament Grounds, wouldn’t have been something he would do six to eight years ago.”
This current election has some parallels to the 1993 election, he says. “After the chaos of the 1980s, it was a reversion to normal procedures in terms of who votes for whom, and in terms of the brand the parties offered. So what we’re looking at in terms of the types of issues, the very obvious ones that you’ll see are things like the cost-of-living or the economy more broadly, and crime and housing.”
Edward says one of the trends internationally has been that political marketing has started to look like business marketing.
“The slogan was it went from politicians being sold like soap to being marketed like a service provider. It was a lot more of a transactional relationship, ‘if you purchase our party with your vote, we will give you this’. Less emotional and more rational. But there has been a trend back to the politician being the product and Trump is the obvious example of this.”
However, he says that trend has been harder to evaluate in New Zealand for a couple of reasons. The big one is the change from First Past the Post to MMP and the effect it has had on elections more broadly.
“Because of that you end up with a central figure, so it pushes back on the idea of a transactional relationship. You saw this in visual form with billboards. Pre-MMP billboards had just the local candidate, now you will have an image of the local candidate and the leader.” As a result, New Zealand is seeing an increase in ‘presidentialisation’ of our politics, Edward says.
“You saw that with Jacinda Ardern when Labour had that massive increase in popularity with almost no new policies, and then last election when the joke was that it was ‘party vote Jacinda’. That’s what we’ve seen recently – the emotional attachment people have in a leader, rather than a transactional relationship we’d seen from the 1970s to about the 2010s.”
Another international trend in political marketing is the rise of big data, which Edward says really started to ramp up in the two Obama presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. “But what happened from 2016 on has been a shift back towards qualitative data. They still use big data in terms of targeting, advertising etc but for a while the qualitative research had declined in influence. What happened was they needed to understand the ‘why’ behind the data.”
Veteran pollster and centre-right blogger David Farrar says political market research is vital for election campaigns because it is firstly about finding out what issues are important to people.
“There’s a famous story that the UK Conservatives found out one year that most people agreed with their immigration policy, so they campaigned hard on the immigration policy, but they lost heavily because more people cared about the NHS.
“Number one is finding out what do people care about, and this isn’t static. Cost-of-living is very big at the moment, that’s why you saw Chris Hipkins ditch a dozen policies that all increased costs. What it also tells you is where you can win people over. There’s certain areas where you’re never going to be seen as the better party in that area. If the Greens tried to campaign on having the toughest law and order policy, that just wouldn’t get them anywhere.”
While current polling shows the Labour-led left bloc and the National-led right bloc neck and neck, there has been a massive gap in donations between the two sides of the political spectrum.
The Electoral Commission’s figures on party donations for 2022 show National pulled in a whopping $5.1 million for the year, while Act received almost $2.1 million. Labour, in contrast, could only attract just under $420,000, barely more than the Greens.
David says high net worth donors in the past have generally had a “grudging respect” for Labour-led governments, but that is not the case for the current one.
“They might not have agreed with Michael Cullen and Helen Clark but they thought it was a competent government. With the Ardern government, and most of the money was donated while Ardern was still Prime Minister, I think there are people who thought, ‘this is a very bad government’.”
Despite their recent turmoil, culminating in the resignation of MP Elizabeth Kerekere, David expects the Green Party to have a similar result to 2020. He also expects the Maori Party to perform well.
“They’re quite open with their ambitions of what they’re seeking in the future in New Zealand, which obviously isn’t for everyone, but in terms of the potential voters they’re appealing to, there’s a general assumption they’re going to do pretty well.”
David also warns parties to be wary of engaging in divisive social issues, such as the transgender rights debate sparked by the recent visit by UK activist Posie Parker.
He says there’s an “opportunity cost” to engage on these topics, particularly for the bigger parties.
“Do you want your leader talking about that or about adjusting tax brackets for inflation, focusing on schools teaching about reading, writing and numeracy? The media generally cover you on only one issue per day, so you need to pick that issue carefully.”
“Whatever the political message, audiences are looking for content that is more personal, more interactive, more relating to the culture or events or landscape around us, and quite frankly more entertaining,” says Ben from Topham Guerin.
“If you look at the content you consume on Instagram or TikTok or whatever else, it’s probably not formal missives from some guy in a suit telling you about how the world should be won.”
Remember to vote on October 14.
This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.