Tonight sees the first of the televised General Election specials, The Battle for Number 10 (Channel 4/Sky News, 9pm), with David Cameron and Ed Miliband facing an 18-minute interview with Jeremy Paxman and a Q&A with the audience, moderated by Sky's Kay Burley. Professor Michael Beverland, Director of our Centre for Research in Advertising and Consumption, gives his analysis of what we can expect.
Tonight’s debate represents a tale of two different branding challenges: an incumbent brand with a clear story to sell that has to some extent removed some of its negative legacy; and a challenger facing attacks on all sides, and still somewhat hamstrung by the legacy of their previous time in office.
Like a middle of the road high street brand, it is Ed Milliband that arguably faces the bigger challenge tonight as he must avoid the temptation to go negative while presenting a credible and substantially differentiated alternative to David Cameron. Both however also see their challenge in terms of extending their appeal to swinging voters.
David Cameron has the authority of the Prime Minister’s office and a five year track record in government, meaning his primary focus should be on reinforcing an established brand position through appeals that focus on completing the job, cleaning up the previous government’s ‘mess’, warning not to undo the good work done so far just as it is showing clear signs of promise, and giving his government the majority it wants to avoid any sense of future uncertainty.
Expect to hear much about how his government has done the hard work, made the tough choices, and put the country back on the right path. Although negative campaigning is likely to feature, tonight provides the main chance to reinforce the positive aspects of the Conservative brand and use that to appeal to swinging voters who may be rethinking their allegiance to UKIP.
Prime Ministerial material?
Ed Milliband’s challenge is different and more difficult because he has to fight on multiple fronts and in marketing terms “cut through a lot of noise." He has spent a lot of time recently focusing on the negatives of voting for centre left parties such as the SNP and to a lesser extent the Greens while also dealing with the threat posed by UKIP. However, this message has not gained much traction with voters because negatives tend to only work when accompanied by a clear statement of intent.
Although he may be tempted to focus on the danger arising from five more years of Conservative rule (with the usual reference to further cuts, benefits for the rich, threats to the NHS and so on), these are messages people have heard before and therefore have probably delivered as much as the probably can. Tonight voters will be interested in whether Mr Miliband represents Prime Ministerial material and what type of government he will lead – one that will not simply return to the past or in effect represent a diet coke version of the Tories. For that reason his challenge is much more difficult.
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