Friday, 22 May 2015

Marketing the Liberal Democrats should mean setting us free.

A couple of weeks ago Daisy Benson shared a video on twitter of a Tim Farron speech from 2010. In it he described our opposing parties as "soulless marketing operations". Five years on from then, it is clear to me that the Liberal Democrats had tried in this election to outdo the other parties with our marketing operation, and fallen spectacularly flat on our faces.

In July 2013 we had a visit in Glasgow from Ryan Coetzee, our party's director of strategy in which he unveiled the great slogan we would be marching under and parroting for the two years (TWO LONG YEARS!) to follow. Apparently the slogan "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" had tested really well with our potential voters (or some other marketing guff-speak). "Well goody for it" I thought at the time. "But how will it make voters feel after two years of solid exposure?"

As an interesting aside, Ryan presented us with a really strong metaphor for message consistency that day based upon his son's playroom activities. Apparently his son had lots of Star Wars lego and lots of Harry Potter lego, but he had warned him against allowing any of the Harry Potter lego to contaminate the construction of his great Death Star project, because we all know a Lego Death Star just won't work if it has yellow and brown bits of Harry Potter Lego in it. Everything has to be pulling in the right direction and in just the right place if the Lego Death Star is to fulfil its destiny and carry us to glorious victory (or something). I don't know if this metaphor was trotted out at other stops on the campaign roadshow, or if somebody had pointed out to him that he was likening our consistent message to the most potent monument to pure evil in the history of cinema, or an inconsequential children's toy that would quickly be either left in a corner or dismantled to resource the creative imagination of a child. I suspect considering Ryan as Lord Business and Liberal Democrat candidates as Master Builders (bagsy Benny the 80s spaceman - replace the word "spaceship" with "drug policy campaign" and that's basically me ;) ) will make The Lego Movie even more enjoyable.

Politics isn't a good field on which to impose slogans and other marketing gimmicks. For me, every time our representatives said the SEFS words they stopped being honest, plausible representatives and turned into robots churned out by a party machine. Ryan tested one presentation of SEFS. He didn't test the extent to which people listen to what you have to say if what you have to say consistently contains the same phrase. If a friend says the same thing every time you go down the pub with them, and that thing he says is obviously advancing the interests of him and his employer, you're going to stop inviting him to the pub. I know I want my politicians to be thoughtful and interesting, and I think our target voters (if there even is such a thing) would prize independent thought, carefully thought out solutions, and (say that dirty word) a sense of humour, before a politician's ability to slavishly adhere to a party message.

Incidentally SEFS itself was fundamentally flawed. Basic inference from what it conceded led you to the statement that the Conservatives can deliver a strong economy and Labour could deliver a Fair Society. I believe neither of these statements to have been particularly demonstrated over the course of the campaign, or the behaviour of those parties in the last 18 years (since 1997).

So how should we market ourselves?

Well here's a radical thought, inspired by my studies of evolution from back in the day. We've just suffered an extinction event. Extinction events throughout the history of life have led to rapid bursts of evolution. But for evolution to have a chance of creating success it needs variety. Forget the slavish adherence to a consistent message. Let our activists talk with passion about the things that make them passionate. Help them to grow in confidence and in authority into the niches where we need them. The ideas that are unpopular will be evolutionary dead ends, but the good ideas, put forward by authoritative advocates who are passionate about those ideas, will bring back the voters, and continue to grow our membership as people realise we are a party that believes in freedom inside the party as well as for the people we seek to represent.

We have many brilliant people within this party. Our new membership will contain many more. We need to find the confidence to grant them the freedom to shine in public. Take the great ideas we have to improve people's lives, help each other figure out how best to present them, and let us talk with passion about how we want to change our society for the better.

...SPACESHIP!!

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