The Farage Factor: What marketers can learn from political campaigns

Annabel Denham
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IN THE run up to the European elections this Thursday, the word on everybody’s mouth is “Ukip”. Having launched a hard-hitting, £1.5m billboard poster campaign, created by Edinburgh-based agency Family, party leader Nigel Farage has followed up with a string of incendiary comments and television appearances. Has he gone too far with his message? Or is there something the media world can learn from his approach?

The rise of Ukip in recent years has been a textbook case of the challenger brand. But the party has had one key advantage: voter apathy. Of the 47m registered voters in the UK, only 35 per cent went to the polling stations during the last European elections. While this presents a tough communications context, it also brings opportunities.

“On the Euro elections, I ask myself, what are the other parties doing? Because all I can think about is Farage,” says Scott Nelson of UM International. Why? Because Ukip’s front man has both made himself available and created memorable associations – an important lesson to marketers and one that is applicable for a number of verticals. Take StatOil, which accounts for 24 per cent of Norway’s GDP, but whose brand awareness is far lower than that of BP or Shell simply because it doesn’t have forecourts. So in 2012, it launched a £2m marketing campaign to raise its UK profile among business leaders, government ministers and civil service decision-makers.

Further, Farage has embarked on a cost-effective call to arms. “Ukip is utilising the PR offered by a press pack hungry for something different,” says Russ Lidstone of Havas Worldwide. “And in social media, Farage is encouraging people to share that they are voting for Ukip via a range of shareable assets.”

Of course, Ukip’s strategy has been far from exemplary. By embracing controversy, the party may have deterred wavering protest voters, not yet fully committed to its cause. Yet as the debate over the party’s “extremism” rages on, a key lesson emerges. “Many members of the public are not too far to the left or right of centre – but some are. As I always say to newer members of the industry: digital is just a channel. Just because you watch YouTube, that is not to say everyone does. In this industry, you have to look outside your own universe of one to understand what other people do and how they think,” Nelson says.

While working with political parties presents certain challenges, it also gives agencies the opportunity to create high profile and very public work. Ask any marketeer the one campaign they wish they’d worked on, and they’ll likely say the 2012 Obama campaign. Indeed, Lidstone thinks it encapsulates all that can be learnt from political strategies. “The sophistication of data analysis and targeting was its real strength.”

And Jon Forsyth of Adam&EveDDB thinks the appeal lies in the “live, every day ‘fight’ the campaign has to deliver.” But can political campaign strategies really be applied to brands? The experiences of Mark Penn, former Bill Clinton aide and more recently head of advertising at Microsoft (where he drove the widely-criticised Scroogled – a negative-advertising campaign aimed at Google), suggest not. Penn believes that if brands or politicians can get their message to the market first, they will get closer to the people. “It works in politics. But when trying to sell a product, the consideration set and time required are often very different. That war room approach may not have worked for Microsoft,” Nelson says.

Annabel Palmer is business features writer at City A.M.