How to use political 'election strategies' for business

From cynical customers to a hostile media, politicians and businesses increasingly face similar challenges. Former Labour strategist Spencer Livermore has five ways to take the political war room into the boardroom.

by Spencer Livermore
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Nowhere is the consumer less willing to listen than in politics – political consumers are more cynical, sceptical and disengaged than those in any other sector. Now, businesses too are facing a degree of the mistrust that voters have long shown. A trend accelerated by the financial crisis.

Then there's the issue of a sometimes hostile media. As trust has fallen in brands and organisations, so the media agenda towards business has become more aggressive. Business reporting is no longer confined to the business pages: it has moved to the top of the news.  This is a level of scrutiny that political strategists have long operated under. The media environment in politics is routinely brutal and political brands are under attack every day. 

And business and politics also have fierce competition in common. In politics, your reputation is only ever relative to that of your opponents, and you can only win by defeating them.  Likewise, in business, competition is all around us – every business has rivals, every brand has competitors, and every campaign has opponents. 

In this increasingly harsh environment, both business and politics are focused on winning. But in politics, the win-or-lose nature of elections sharpens the imperative to win. This has led political strategists to develop a unique process to deliver the clarity and discipline necessary to win.  It is an approach business leaders can apply too.  It has five steps:

1.       Target the audience needed to win

Begin by ensuring strategy is genuinely driven by audience insight. Political strategists meticulously analyse their target audiences – the ‘swing voters’ needed to win elections – gaining a deep understanding of who they are and how to influence them.  Prioritising the audience needed to win allows a continual line of sight to be maintained to them at all times during the campaign.

2.       Relentlessly focus on the competition

As Michael Porter observed, 'the job of the strategist is to understand and cope with competition'. Elections are uniquely focused on beating the competition. Understanding that your strengths and vulnerabilities are only ever relative to those of the competition forces you to build from your strengths; insulate yourself on your vulnerabilities; and capitalise on your opponent’s weaknesses.

3.       Position yourself on the winning territory

Once the target audience is identified and the competitive landscape is understood, work towards developing the strategic positioning, whether for the organisation, product or brand – basically, define the territory you can actually win. The task is to occupy this territory and to do so before, and more convincingly than, your opponents. 

4.       Create a contrast to define the choice

Every successful political campaign contrasts its offer with that of its opponents. By creating a choice between two offers, the voter – or consumer – is asked to choose rather than merely pass judgement on you in isolation.

5.       Know your story and stick to it

Fundamental to election-winning success is the disciplined adherence to strategy. To do this, strategy must be coherently articulated in the form of a narrative that drives and unites all communications. This matters because, in essence, a campaign is a battle for dominance between two competing narratives – every day dominated by your narrative, you win; every day spent on your opponents’, you lose. 

Applying to the boardroom the rigour, clarity and competitive focus of the election war room can help companies and brands outperform their competition. The challenges faced in business and politics are now so alike that the strategic solutions should be too...

Spencer Livermore is a former new Labour election strategist.  He now heads Thirty Six Strategy.

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