Following last night's TV election special Professor Michael Beverland from our School of Management reflects on who won and how well both leaders performed in presenting their party's 'brand' to voters.
Highlights from last night's debate
In the aftermath of last night’s election special featuring David Cameron and Ed Miliband most of the newspapers have focused on who won. Based on my piece yesterday, from a branding point of view, both leaders acquitted themselves well.
Valuable brands are created using two strategies – stressing clear points of difference while nullifying points of weakness (often called points of parity). Both leaders clearly needed to do this last night, and both did it well. Although the format has been criticised by some (not the least Miliband himself) it arguably worked to the advantage of both, although perhaps Cameron made a mistake in not being able to take the argument up to Miliband directly. From a branding point of view, I declare it a draw, although arguably it is Miliband who still has more ground to make up.
Both leaders are clearly pitching to swinging, primarily middle class voters (a point reinforced by the heavy M&S advertising during the breaks). Despite being grilled mercilessly by Jeremy Paxman, neither leader got side-tracked on issues of more interest to rusted-on UKIP, SNP and Green voters.
Both nullified immigration concerns – Miliband identified Labour had got it wrong in the past and agreed on the need for controls while Cameron reinforced what I predicted would be a key meme by emphasizing the job was not finished but he had the plan to do it. Scotland hardly featured last night although this is still very much a weak point that Miliband needs to do better on, especially when he is assailed by the SNP and Conservatives in the next round. Both leaders therefore have a clear view of their target market and challenge – to attract swinging voters without undermining their base.
Leaders on message
Targeting the same voter meant both leaders have to craft a narrative that is subtly different and plays to their respective party’s brand strengths. David Cameron’s main message is that a strong economy allows Britain to fund the things we all view as essential (the NHS, defence and so on). Ed Miliband flips this, arguing that it is only through fairness that one gets a strong economy. Arguably this is a subtler and potentially (but not necessarily) trickier message to sell, but Miliband reinforced it in a number of ways. Although recanting much of New Labour’s past, like any good brand ambassador he did not throw it out entirely, instead drawing on the essential Labour message of fairness that has always laid at the heart of that party’s philosophy. Thus, his pitch to the electorate is that while we have come some way, we could be so much better. How he achieves that will need to be outlined over the next six weeks.
In contrast, David Cameron sought to nullify perceptions of being out of touch and indifferent to the effect of his cuts by identifying that these cuts were necessary, not easy or undertaken with any joy, but really represent efficiency gains rather than any ideological commitment to small government. He reinforced this in a number of ways, identifying cuts to the NHS as “removing bureaucrats”, cuts to the Police as “getting police officers out from behind their desks and back into policing”, and reinforced his case with statistics demonstrating that such cuts had not come at the expense of performance or essential front line services.
His message is simple and revolves around reframing the size of cuts as small efficiency gains (the one pound of 100 theme referred to several times) that he and his team are on top of. Thus the problems still experienced by the economy represent a unfinished but manageable task requiring a competent government. This is a powerful message for a government seeking a second term and one not easily combatted with appeals that ‘things could be better.’
Miliband still has the harder task
So although both acquitted themselves well (and Miliband certainly earned sympathy from a necessary, but intense, grilling from Jeremy Paxman) the task for Ed Miliband still remains the harder one. While David Cameron just has to defend an unfinished legacy, Ed Miliband must both defend a personal and political legacy, fight off attacks from minor parties, while also fighting to get out a subtle point of difference. This is certainly shaping up to be an interesting brand battle, and will only get more interesting next week when some louder, grumpier, pure and very focused brands enter the fray.