The lessons from the 2020 election, and political currents caused by Covid since, mean the 2023 election is open for parties that listen now and execute a strong marketing strategy, writes Jennifer Lees-Marshment

Most people think advertising, big data or spin determines election results. But as Phillip Gould, a key advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, told me back in 2007, political marketing strategy is the most important factor in winning elections.

Parties need clear goals, and an effective strategy to get there. But strategy must be like a ship, changing course if needed in response to shifts in currents and wind. The 2020 election produced more storms than most elections, but the storm is far from over and there is uncharted territory ahead.

Our recently published book Political marketing and management in the New Zealand 2020 election highlights how turbulent those political waters have been since the arrival of the Covid-19 crisis. Featuring perspectives of political practitioners including pollsters for both Labour and National, it makes clear how a crisis changes the political market and makes it more volatile.

As Labour pollster David Talbot remarks: “Covid-19… represented a tectonic shift in the political landscape.” It made defunct any political product or policies created in response to market research before 2020, a major challenge to effective strategy in an election year.

The book also analyses survey data from the TVNZ 2020 Vote Compass which had 182,399 unique respondents during the campaign and a post-election survey with more than 24,000 respondents.

The data reveals some continuity in the desire for a more interventionist government that provides greater support for those less well-off and takes action on the environment, trends we saw in the 2014 and 2017 Vote Compass data.

But there was also surprising trends. First, the most important issue for voters during the 2020 election campaign was the economy (for example, economic recovery, job creation, taxes). This was ahead of Covid-19 or health. In fact, healthcare fell from being the top issue for voters in 2017 to third in 2020.

This emphasises what we have come to learn more profoundly in 2021, as lockdowns have been repeated and extended and new traffic light systems introduced, the Covid-19 pandemic is not just about health. It is a multi-faceted and complex issue.

Moreover, research on the 2020 election suggested hidden lessons behind the otherwise simple result. Despite Labour’s clear victory, and Ardern’s stellar likeability, it was built on shifting sands. The party’s brand communication was boosted by government communication over Covid management which is now backfiring with instructions to the public about levels, steps and lights no longer clear and the crisis growing in terms of time and impact.

Ardern’s brand was tied to Covid-management by her own branding of the election as the “Covid election” and is therefore subject to damage as Covid is no longer banished from our shores. Failures in delivery were masked by crisis management and polite populism, but this mask is slipping while members of the public have to wear theirs to go to work, school and the mall. We’ve seen the impact of this in recent polls showing a downward trend for Labour.

More obvious was that National trashed its own brand, but less well-known is how post-election Vote Compass data showing a complete reversal of previous strengths on perceived ability to govern, and the dissatisfaction came from their own supporters. Only 24 percent of National’s own supporters thought the party was capable of governing, with 55 percent saying it was not.

New Zealand First policies were closely aligned with the public, but their leader was not well liked in 2020. Despite this, another new trend in the 2020 Vote Compass data was the strong public desire for a more protectionist government that makes New Zealand less reliant on other countries for goods and services, that taxes companies exporting water and deports convicted foreigners. The market for the party is there – they just must reformulate their brand (including the leader) to represent it more effectively.

There were some winners, but this was due to determined and coherent political marketing strategy.

ACT’s success was built on cognisant and comprehensive re-branding around the freedom theme. The party focused on listening to voters and adopting policy positions in response, backed by overt and concrete action on the End of Life Bill. In other words, ACT did well, not because of advertising, but because it had an effective political marketing strategy, which has continued to benefit them through 2021.

Similarly, the Greens gained seats by communicating their achievements in coalition, and a market research-led position that they would push Labour to be more transformational in the future. Te Pāti Māori adopted a niche targeted approach that helped get two MPs back in Parliament.

All this means that, for 2023, the election outcome is not nearly predetermined. Labour faces multiple challenges in maintaining support for its Covid management through ever-growing challenges and the virtually impossible task of maintaining traditional National voters it won in 2020, while delivering for its own party members.

This means there is potential for National to win in 2023 – but there is no automatic route back to power. National can only win through reform and responsiveness. It needs to offer entrepreneurial policies to suit the new post-Covid environment and completely redesign its leadership and party brand.

Therefore, in reality, the political marketing game has no clear winner. Currently the minor parties (Greens, ACT, Māori and NZ First) have a strong opportunity to connect with and represent their key target markets, which could result in a very dynamic game and complex result.

Stormy waters lie ahead, making political marketing strategy and strategic policy development much harder. The ship needs to keep changing direction to reach its destination, or maybe even change the destination. Given the longevity and vast impact of the pandemic, we need space for dialogue on transformational and innovative policies.

There is a greater need for media and educational organisations through centres like Koi Tū (The Centre for Informed Futures) to play a role in facilitating that dialogue. Otherwise, we could see the rise of more tactical and populist politics because short-term political marketing is easier than the more strategic, long-term approaches and the rise in protectionist thinking evident in Vote Compass data.

We need to find calm waters to have the necessary dialogue about the future direction of the whole country before parties can chart their individual course.

Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment specialises in political marketing and management at the University of Auckland. She is the author of 'Political Management: The Dance of Government and Politics'.

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