Election campaign lessons for marketers: money well spent and wasted

There were six fundamental lessons for marketers and business leaders coming out of the political parties’ advertising campaigns for last month’s federal election.

The first was a reminder that memorable headlines and taglines work. None of the major parties’ ad campaigns in 2010, 2013 and 2016 had resonated with voters like “Kevin 07” had. But “the Bill you can’t afford” did. It had arisen as a standout line in a Liberal Party ad 11 months before the election. And when the Liberal strategists continued to hear voters discuss the line without being prompted, they quickly shifted their advertising emphasis to it rather than the more straightforward and less memorable “Building our economy. Securing our future”.

The second lesson was in scenario planning a campaign thoroughly, much as generals do in wartime. Many of the most successful social media campaigns, which to consumers look like impromptu pieces of content, have been planned well in advance. Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet during the stadium blackout at the 2013 Super Bowl was a brilliant piece of moment-driven communication that quickly went viral. But it happened because Oreo had been doing these sorts of tweets around major cultural events for a year leading up to the Super Bowl, in a war-room and scenario-planning setting.

Like Christmas for retailers, and the Super Bowl for brands, the federal election is a date set in time that provides an immovable deadline for marketers. All parties have three years to plan, and scenario plan, their advertising and communications. It means there should be no excuses for not scenario planning in detail. And it was surprising that the Labor Party, whose own advertising campaign was meticulously rolled out for the first week or so, did not seem to have a Plan B for the Liberals’ “Bill you can’t afford”, a line that had been around for almost a year.

The third lesson was one of branding. Clive Palmer, by his own reckoning, spent more than $50 million on his campaign, while the Liberal and Labor parties spent just under $30 million combined. Clive was everywhere, in yellow, telling voters to “make Australia great again”. The mistake he made was one of brand recognition. Few people could remember the name of his party. It was hard to find it on many of his ads. And when it came to voting on the Senate form, with up to 20-plus options, on a white piece of paper with black type, there was no Palmer United Party like there was in 2013 to prompt some brand recognition. Clive Palmer now represented the United Australia Party. And the Liberals, Labor, Nationals, Greens, Democrats and One Nation had built up far stronger brand recognition over many years.

The fourth lesson was in media planning. At the 2016 election, just under 3 million people voted before the election day. In 2019 around 4.7 million voters did, and 3 million had done so 10 days before election day. That’s around 20 per cent of those who eventually voted. The conundrum for the political parties’ media buyers was that they had traditionally spent most of their advertising dollars in the last 10 days of the election, in an attempt to persuade swinging voters their way. But in 2019, 20 per cent of voters had already made up their minds and voted before those final 10 days.

The fifth lesson for marketers was that there can be a first mover advantage with innovation and technology. Kevin Rudd was the first to tap into the power of social media. Gough Whitlam did likewise by being the first to use the power of merchandising with his “It’s Time” tagline written over anything from T-shirts to matchboxes. And in 2019, Scott Morrison realised the power of virtual Town Hall meetings. In the last week of the campaign he engaged with tens of thousands of undecided voters in marginal electorates, across four states, by answering their questions in a public teleconference forum.

The final lesson was a reminder that the fundamentals of communication can still be a differentiator in today’s digitally dominated world. Paul Keating and the late Bob Hawke’s longform letter to the Australian people was a great reminder of the influence of great writing, and that not everything in today’s political communications needs to be a sound bite to stand out.

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