Bush’s marketing tactics show UK parties the way

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Last year, US President George W. Bush won re-election by appealing to voters who subscribed, in one way or another, to the old bumper-sticker slogan that God, guns and guts had made America great.

The main parties in the UK election have largely avoided all three subjects but their marketing strategies owe a considerable debt to President Bush, according to executives involved in this and past campaigns.

From a tactical standpoint, the Bush campaign made the political world safe for the direct marketer, bringing people into party politics by appealing to their interest in single issues.

The UK candidates have far less money to spend than Mr Bush, but they have been following his example by using precisely targeted messages to win over voters.

“It builds from the US presidential campaign,” says Andrew McGuinness, chief executive of TBWA\London, Labour's advertising agency. “You started with an interest in the church or guns, or whatever it may be, and that led from a subject that was intimate to you back to party politics.”

The UK campaign is being closely followed in the marketing world because it comes at a time of crisis in advertising. New technologies are enabling advertisers to target consumers with greater precision, but they are also giving people the power to tune out commercial messages.

The UK parties have been mirroring the private-sector response to this quandary mixing new and old tactics to make more targeted appeals. As a result, the campaign has been marked by the greater use of e-mail, internet-search advertising and voter-segmentation software, as well as old-fashioned, press-the-flesh campaigning.

“You are seeing very disparate tactics that are linked by the acknowledgement that you need to get that connection, that intimacy, with the electorate,” Mr McGuinness says.

For some marketing professionals, the campaign's most dramatic development has been the embrace of personal politicking by Tony Blair, the prime minister. Placing less emphasis on set-piece interviews with reporters, Mr Blair has been trying to talk to voters and to be seen talking to voters.

“I see that as the beginning of a sea change,” says Charles Trevail, chief executive of Promise, a UK brand consultancy, who has worked for the Conservative party in the past.

Mr Trevail says he believes Mr Blair's personal approach will inspire corporate imitators just as the arrival of Mr Blair's New Labour party encouraged companies such as British Airways to consider re-branding campaigns.

“People want the dialogue. They want the feeling they have been listened to,” Mr Trevail says.

This desire to go directly to the voter also underlies the Conservative party's much vaunted “voter vault” software, which enables it to segment the electorate in great detail.

Richard Morris, business development director at the DDB London advertising agency, says the parties are cutting out the middleman to go straight to the voter. “All the parties are doing more targeted communications direct marketing, phone polling, phone surveying and SMS text messaging,” he says.

As was the case with last year's US campaign, candidates are successfully exploring new technologies. The Liberal Democrats, for example, are enthusiastic about search-engine advertising for raising their profile and attracting donations.

In this kind of marketing, advertisers pay to have their messages appear next to internet search results. On one recent day, a Google search for Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, yielded a Lib Dem appeal that popped up to the right of the other results.

“It's particularly good at reaching out to people who have not traditionally been in contact with the party,” says Mark Pack, the Liberal Democrats' internet campaign manager.

But what is striking about these efforts is how similar they are to traditional campaigning.

“It's clever local campaigning,” says Will Harris, former marketing director of the Conservative party and now chief executive of The Bank advertising agency. “They are good at doing it offline. Now, they are doing it online.”

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