In this UK election season, I’ve found myself reflecting on the theme that inspired this blog in the first place. I’m constantly searching for how marketing can make a “tribe” of our customers and get them to react – to move en-mass to take up a new product or exhibit a new behaviour. Only rarely does marketing deliberately achieve that goal – to set a new trend, define a new category.
Elections demonstrate a very particular way of creating a “tribe”. Political parties are very good at describing themselves by what they are against, and by creating an enemy of “the other lot”. A really effective way to build a tribe is to give them a common enemy to rail against. Thus many political systems, the UK no less than others, are defined by polarity, by a “left wing” and a “right wing”.
This polarisation works because we seem to be very deeply hardwired to want to join a gang – to define ourselves by who we are with, and who we are against, whether its politics, football teams, academic debates or many other aspects of life.
We’ve seen a very successful, and quite unexpected, bit of tribe-building over the last few weeks in the UK. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, have traditionally polled sub-20% in the UK and been, let’s face it, pretty marginal. Over the last few weeks, since the leaders’ debates started, their poll rating has shot up and (even if it’s only a short term blip) at the time of writing this they now regularly poll second at around 30%.
Only time will tell what actually happens in the election on May 6th, but in the meantime I think the Liberal Democrats have stumbled on a lesson in tribe-building that we marketers should take note of. I believe that the real under-pinning of their recent poll boost is more fundamental than a good performance by Nick Clegg in a couple of debates. Instead, their success has come from re-framing the “polarity” of UK politics from “left wing versus right wing” into “established parties versus new ones”. Notwithstanding that they are one of the oldest political parties, they’ve managed to create a debate based on “look at those two old parties battling it out with the same old arguments – only we represent real fresh-thinking and change” – and they’ve managed to make it stick, so far.
This has had an amazingly galvanising effect on the public. When the Liberal Democrats were positioned as just “somewhere in between the other two”, our natural tendency to want to join a gang worked against them – they were neither one thing nor the other, and it’s much less satisfying for our “gang instinct” to be moderate and on the fence. As soon as they changed the spectrum from left-right to old-new, and positioned themselves at one end of that spectrum rather than in the middle, they became a gang worth joining – suddenly defined by being “not like the others” - and people have responded in droves.
The election campaigns will now rest, I think, on the Liberal Democrat’s ability to retain the assertion that that spectrum is the one that matters, and to resist being pincered back into being “somewhere in between the other two”.
In the meantime, here is some food for thought for us marketers. How is your tribe of customers defined? What statement are people making when they join with you and use your product? Who are the “others” that your customers define themselves against? Is there a clever re-framing trick like the one the Liberal Democrats have stumbled on that could transform your product or service from being “in the mix” with everyone else to being clearly differentiated from them?
This kind of thinking is not a recipe for comparative advertising, though our politicians would seem to think otherwise; being clearly distinct from your competitors can be a positive position to take. What the election teaches us, though, is that with an effort of will we can choose what that distinctive position is.