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Brand Strategy Politics Marketing

What marketers are forecasting for the UK’s summer general election


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

May 22, 2024 | 8 min read

With a snap election called in the UK, attention will soon turn to the campaigns deployed by those seeking to enter Number 10. Just how much of a difference will marketing make to the fortunes of the Conservatives, Labour and co in only six weeks?

Downing Street

Voters have a big choice to make this July / Photo by Hadyn Cutler on Unsplash

Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a sudden general election has surprised almost everyone in the UK today, not least Sir Martin Sorrell. “I thought [the Conservatives] would wait til November,” the S4 Capital founder and executive chairman told The Drum. “Are they worried inflation won’t subside? It’s puzzling. Was there no wiggle room for a pre-election giveaway budget?”

As the shock settles, attention is quickly turning to what comes next. “Whatever the outcome of the general election, our members need a decisive government which will work in partnership and collaboration with an industry which underpins Britain’s economic growth,” said Phil Smith, director general of the advertiser trade body Isba, in the immediate aftermath of the prime minister’s speech outside Number 10.

But while the marketing industry might have already decided on the outcome it wants from July 4 onwards, what remains to be seen is what role marketing itself will play in determining who the next government will be over the next six weeks of campaigning.

Rob Blackie, a former Ogilvy director of social who ran to be London mayor in the most recent city election, believes all is to play for. “A lot of people are leaning one way or another but will be swayable right up to election day.

“The shape of the campaign depends on how rational the Conservative party is. People are really struggling to get by. Traditionally, people are embarrassed by their personal finances, they don’t like to talk about money but the truth is some people are desperate. If [the Conservatives] only focus on the culture war, they will fall flat.”

Labour’s counter-argument just has to be, “We’re going to be boring and reliable,” Blackie says. Many reluctant Conservatives who voted against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn rather than for Boris Johnson last time round are on the table. And there’s a youth vote that can be awoken with the right message and media mix.

This time around, the ambition of campaigns will only be constrained by what can be achieved in the time available – and not cost. That’s because, in 2023, the national election spending cap was raised by 80%, from £19.5m to about £35m. The Tories spent £16.5m on the 2019 election; Labour spent £12m.

“This time, there will be a huge amount of advertising across a much broader range of platforms. In particular, there will be more use of influencers to attract younger people voting.” Expect to see an increase in out-of-home, too.

Sam Jeffers, chief exec of Who Targets Me, recently told The Drum the upcoming campaigning would be the ‘richest’ general election the UK has ever seen. “The UK has more money for this election than ever before,” he noted, pointing out that the doubling of election spending limits will funnel significant funds into digital advertising. “In some ways, that makes it all feel quite American this time around,” Jeffers added, indicating a shift towards a more digitally focused and financially intensive campaign strategy. [Listen to Sam here.]

Some insiders, however, question how much of a difference any amount of spending will make on the election outcome. Speaking anonymously, an advertising specialist working with Labour puts it more bluntly: “In terms of Rishi holding a snap election and expecting marketing or spin to do a job, it’s beyond damage limitation at this point. Marketing is not a miracle worker without some semblance of substance.”

While Sunak’s election announcement may have taken the UK by surprise, fortunately, we’ve been limbering up for the general election for weeks now with our Politics for Drummies podcast. In conversation with host Alastair Duncan, some of the smartest minds in marketing and politics have been sharing their expertise on the art of campaigning. Here is what they forecast.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s CSO Richard Huntington emphasized the internal chaos within political parties. “Divided parties do not win elections, and that is what [Keir Starmer has overcome] in four short years to the point where, you know, it is just chaos over the other side,” he remarked. Huntington also pointed out the declining voter turnout, especially among the younger demographic. “The long-term trend for the last 50 years is decline,” he said. [Listen to Richard here.]

MP for Perth and Kinross Pete Wishart brings attention to the ethical dimensions of political communication. “The idea of lying and telling the truth has been a feature of this Parliament,” he states, criticizing the current state of political discourse. Wishart underscores the public’s expectation for truthfulness in political communications, a standard that appears increasingly violated. [Listen to Pete here.]

Karin Robinson, former vice-chair at Democrats Abroad, provides a broader perspective on the issue of trust. “The ‘Trust Barometer’ has been telling us for years that trust is declining across many of the institutions that we rely upon to run a stable electoral democracy, not least the media and government itself,” she says. Robinson points out a vicious cycle of distrust among institutions, further complicating the political environment. [Listen to Karin here.]

Naomi Smith, CEO of campaigning group Best for Britain, expresses excitement about a potential return to traditional campaigning tactics. “I think we’re going to see a return to out-of-home,” she predicts, suggesting that campaigns will need to meet swing voters where they are, such as on digital billboards and gym screens. Smith’s insights highlight a potential shift back to more tangible, location-based campaign strategies. [Listen to Naomi here.]

Finally, Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy chairman, offers a unique comparison of political campaigns to commercial marketing. “Political campaigns are obviously interesting because they’re highly unrepresentative of most kinds of purchase decisions,” he observes. Sutherland’s analogy underscores the unique and infrequent nature of elections, contrasting them with the daily consumer choices that might be more reflective of true democratic engagement. [Listen to Rory here.]

As the UK heads towards a snap election, these expert insights underscore the complexity of the current political climate, marked by internal party chaos, declining voter trust, ethical concerns, and evolving campaign strategies. Whether any marketing tactic can significantly impact the election outcome in such a short time remains to be seen.

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