Who Won the 2010 Election Marketing Campaign?
No single party won the general election on the 6th May, though the Conservatives won the most seats, but how did the parties fare in their marketing campaigns? Cranfield School of Management teamed up with communications agency MESH Planning and Research Now to develop a ground-breaking research tool, the MESH Election Experience Monitor. The Monitor evaluated the impact of the many ways in which 'floating voters' came into contact with the UK election campaign, from advertising to televised debates to word-of-mouth.
In our study, around 1,100 floating voters completed a questionnaire on their voting intentions, perceptions of parties and leaders and views on issues. They then texted whenever they saw, heard, experienced or even thought about anything that related to one of the political parties, explaining whether they were receiving this experience positively or negatively. In other words, was the experience making them more or less likely to vote for a particular party respectively? Participant texts went into their own online diaries which they completed every other day, uploading photos and providing comments about their experiences. Each week participants then repeated their online questionnaire to see how their views were changing and which experiences impacted on perceptions and voting intentions. This approach is very different to the election polls run by YouGov, Ipsos MORI and others, because we can see how our panel of floating voters are affected by different media and events. We are not just measuring share of the vote.
The Conservative Party started out the campaign with the deepest pockets, having substantial funding from Lord Ashcroft and other benefactors, Labour benefitted from Union money, and the Liberal Democrats made do with smaller donations from individuals. So, we would have expected the Tories to win the marketing campaign because they had the most money, and they started out with a huge poll lead over Labour. But what did our data tell us about the parties' marketing effectiveness? It revealed was that across the whole of the campaign period, many participants’ experiences of Labour and the Conservatives were more negative than positive (see Figures 1 and 2), lending weight to the old adage that parties lose rather than win elections. The Liberal Democrats were seen most positively overall. They benefitted enormously from Nick Clegg's strong performances in the first and third leader's debates. In hindsight, Cameron made a tactical error taking part. In 2005, according to an Ipsos MORI post-election study, the single debate hosted by Dimbleby influenced about 18% of all voters. This time, the three debates will have influenced many more voters, not all in Cameron’s direction. The debates revealed the Liberal Democrats as credible contenders - the opinion polls had them ahead of Labour in expected popular vote share at one point in the campaign.
Gordon Brown's harsh words for a 65 year old Rochdale grandmother for raising immigration issues also damaged Labour's persuasiveness. Not least because the gaffe was played out in the TV and radio news and in the press. A sheepish looking Gordon Brown mouthed in the final debate, "there's a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday, I don't get all of it right". The gaffe certainly made our floating voters less likely to vote Labour as the following comment from a Labour leaning voter indicates: "Calling the calm, well mannered, archetypal English voter, who dared to bring up the massive problem of immigration, a bigot, this was a blunder of the highest order by our Prime Minister. It showed him to be the untrustworthy, inconsiderate, dishonest and uncaring man that I knew him to be...it will be the final nail in the coffin of his disastrous leadership."
The final week of the campaign was the most critical, when around 15-20% of the electorate are still making up their minds on where to put the cross on the ballot paper. In this election, an unprecedented one in three voters (36%) according to polling outfit, Ipsos MORI, said they might still change their mind on who to vote for. There was still all to play for in the last week of the campaign; the reason why the party leaders travelled frantically around the country visiting marginals in a bid to get out the vote. In the last week, our panel of floating voters were experiencing party messages mainly in the TV news, posters and leaflets.
But in the end, the Conservative campaign simply didn't have the grand message it needed to gain the trust of the electorate. The Conservative's positive ratings were both not sufficiently positive and not sufficiently ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The 'Big Society' idea wasn’t big enough. It had neither the grand union-busting government-shrinking vision of Margaret Thatcher, nor the fairer society principles underlying Tony Blair's 'education, education, education' stance in 1997. US political consultants advise their candidates to spend half the time attacking opponents and the other half outlining their raison d'etre. It seems Cameron didn’t really do either. For that reason, we award the best marketing campaign gong to Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As kingmakers in a hung parliament, they look set to reap the benefits of a campaign well fought.
What seems clear is that a small but significant proportion of voters decided at the last minute to vote for the devil they knew, Labour, rather than the devil they didn't, Conservative, and shored up Labour's core vote. Only real-time experience tracking picks up this effect. Given that another election in the next few years seems more likely than ever, the parties would be well advised to commission their own experience tracking.
Click image for full version
Dr. Paul Baines is a Reader in Marketing at Cranfield School of Management and Co-author (With Sir Robert Worcester and Roger Mortimore) of ‘Explaining Labour’s Landslip’ (Politico’s 2005).
Dr Emma K. Macdonald is Senior Research Fellow in Marketing at Cranfield School of Management.
Fiona Blades is Founder and CEO, MESH Planning and formerly Planning Director at Claydon Heeley.