04 September 2013

Political parties: Forget "message". Try vision, values and leadership

With three days to go, I've pretty much given up hope. But reflecting on this excruciatingly awful 2013 Federal Election campaign, I still can't help wishing for the impossible... a glimpse of vision from a political leader somewhere.

Ask a party leader why we should vote for him/her and the answer is inevitably framed narrowly, with reference to the other parties. Even the Greens pretty much go with "Because we're not them...".

Surely a better question is "Why do you want to lead us?" Forget the other parties and tell us what you and your mob actually believe in. What are your fundamental values? What motivates you? What's your vision for the nation?

Both major parties are so often heading down the same cynical path on issues like asylum seekers and climate change that we can no longer rely on observed actions and stated policies as a guide to their values and beliefs. Yet I think we crave something more meaningful.

To extend this a little, and with reference to what I do for organisations (businesses and not-for-profits), it continues to puzzle me why political parties spend massive amounts on communications and "message" consultants, researchers and pollsters, but apparently fail to work internally on their core strategy first.

Put simply, message doesn't drive meaning. What I consistently tell marketers is that they must identify or decide what it is they really stand for FIRST, before they even think about the implications for communication. I don't see why the parties that aspire to govern us should do things any differently.

21 June 2013

Coco Pops and contemporary culture

On Triple R FM's Breakfasters this morning, Stew Farrell was lightly ridiculing a newspaper story about advertising targeted to children when something curious happened. His co-presenters, Fee B-Squared and Lorin Clarke, seemed to become quite uncomfortable at Stew's repeated naming of the breakfast cereal brand Coco Pops (which was the subject of the story) and effectively truncated the discussion, even though it was absolutely clear that he was responding to a news item and this was in no way a case of "cash for comment".

The idea that mentioning brand names is somehow unpleasant or distasteful in non-commercial media is quite widespread. I've written here before about the ABC's unworkable and, at times, hypocritical "no brands" policy. But I haven't previously detected the same attitude among public broadcasters.

Let's be sensible about this: brands are a cultural reality. Like it or not, brands are one of the ways in which we make sense of contemporary Western life. It's almost impossible to discuss anything important or meaningful in our lives without mentioning a brand or, usually, numerous brands. Our memories are often linked to, and activated by, brands, brand names and advertising jingles. We don't do it consciously and we certainly don't do it in expectation of a commercial reward. Notwithstanding often valid critiques in works like "No Logo", brands are here to stay.

And just because it's a breakfast cereal or an unhealthy product doesn't mean a brand is unworthy of discussion on public radio. 3CR's Health Show was very actively involved in fighting - and ending - Marlboro's sponsorship of the Australian Open Tennis Championships in the early 1980s.

After all, Triple R is a brand, too. Its pivotal role in Melbourne culture over nearly 40 years is inextricably linked to numerous commercial brands: music venues, record labels, bands, festivals, cafes, TV shows. Silencing brands would be doing a disservice to the culture of the city Triple R serves so well.

15 May 2013

Blurred vision and pointless positioning

More than a decade ago, while waiting for my visitor's pass at the gatehouse of the Australian HQ of a multinational pharmaceutical company, I noticed a new sign proclaiming their vision. It was so extraordinarily bad that it remains imprinted on my mind to this day. It read:
Achieving together to lead in healthcare.
It was a classic example of the sort of vision statement that can only be written by a committee. Ugly to read and say. So cautious as to be incomprehensible. Undifferentiating. Uninspired and uninspiring.

Achieving what? Achieving to lead? What does that even mean?

A vision statement is supposed to give employees, customers and stakeholders an unequivocal and inspiring view of what makes your organisation unique and how it aims to make the world a better place. Seeing such a hopelessly ill-directed and badly written statement made me think no-one was in charge and no-one really knew what the company was on about. Its performance in subsequent years tends to suggest perhaps that was indeed the case.

I was reminded of that pharma classic today when I saw a slogan carefully signwritten on the side of a smart-looking utility vehicle bearing the name of an air conditioning maintenance firm. It read:
Partners of first choice.
A positioning statement is supposed to define the ways in which you would like customers to perceive your offer as different and distinctive compared with those of your competitors. But this one is also meaningless and uninspired.

Being seen as a partner rather than a supplier is every service provider's aim. There's nothing new or distinctive about that - it's old news, as stale and hackneyed as saying you offer solutions. And being first choice is surely the goal of every provider of air conditioning services - they probably differ only in terms of which customer segment they decide to target.

My point is, if you are going to bother telling the world what you stand for, make it count.

If you lack the internal resources to work through it and develop something distinctive and meaningful, then seek outside assistance. And if your consultant comes up with twaddle like Achieving together to lead in healthcare, then sack him/her and get someone who knows how to develop insights, capture ideas and make words work.

19 February 2013

Give polls a chance. Or STFU.

We all know there's a problem with political polls. Every time a new poll is published, we have 24 hours of headlines, questions shouted at politicians at every doorstop, denials, pundits attributing causes to every "dip" or "surge" and the polls themselves dismissed as meaningless or "dodgy". But the fault isn't usually with the poll. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Political polls are conducted transparently and with robust, documented, methodology. Poll methodology is typically provided (if the media organisations or critics care to ask for it) along with the findings. Indeed, it's in the interests of market research companies to provide details of their methodology in order to support the credibility of their findings. It's just that the media and others aren't usually that interested. Of course there are technical flaws and merits in every approach - pollsters and psephologists may argue at length among themselves about methods and significance, but you'll rarely see those arguments played out in the mainstream media. Margins of error are also provided; but they too attract scant attention while tiny changes in voting percentage are discussed ad nauseam.
  2. Stated intention today is not a reliable predictor of future behaviour. This is very well documented in the academic marketing literature - all sorts of factors have been shown to have the potential to cause the consumer not to follow through with his or her intention. A poll that asks "If a Federal election were held today..." sets up an artificial situation, making it even less likely to be a good predictor of the future. Even with the best design - and the best will - the findings of such a poll can only be used as a very rough guide to what might happen in the (impossible) event of an election being held today.
  3. Local factors may significantly alter intentions. Voting involves a complex process - it's very different from answering a phone call or completing a survey online. For example, a significant proportion of those who provide opinion poll answers probably have no clear understanding of who their local candidates are, or will be, at a future Federal election. What if I told the pollsters that I intended to vote Liberal but when I eventually see the picture of the Liberal candidate on the How to Vote card, I don't like the look of him or her? Or I was intending to vote Labor but I recognise the Greens candidate as a former local Councillor who did some good things for the community? These may be small effects, but when countless column inches are devoted to differences of 1 or 2 per cent, they may well be very relevant.
  4. Correlation does not equal causation. A movement in poll numbers - even a change that falls within the margin or error and thus can't even be thought of as a "real" change - invariably provokes a flood of analysis seeking to explain its cause. No change in voting intention should ever be attributed to any specific piece of political business - an announcement, a scandal, a photo op or a fuck-up - based on a piece of descriptive research like an opinion poll. Only a properly-controlled piece of causal research, where the impact of one particular factor can be investigated while others are controlled for, can provide strong evidence of causation; for example, was voting intention statistically significantly different among those who had seen a particular speech or interview, as compared with those who hadn't? Even then, there might well be confounders - people who saw the speech might be better informed about politics than those who didn't and this might be related to their long-term voting intentions.
My point is, when polls are discussed, dissected and ultimately despised, don't dismiss the research as "dodgy" unless you've examined and understood the methodology. To put it bluntly, don't blame the polls or the pollsters - blame the pollies and the press.