08 May Tory victory gives us all a lesson in the fundamentals of building strong brands and the perils of prediction

For anyone who was listening to Paddy Ashdown offering to eat his hat if the exit polls were right last night, and who is now watching mesmerised as the actual results prove to be even more dramatic, this has been a fascinating election result.

Vast amounts of spend commissioned on seemingly endless polling (read market research) and yet still people (read customers) surprise us with their unpredictability. What’s going on?

1) Risk aversion

We often talk about this in our work with marketers. One of the most powerful pieces of human response. We are naturally, genetically programmed to avoid risk. To play it safe. Which is why political messaging based on fear and self-interest work. (As the Tory strategists with their campaign knew). “Where was the hope” cried the commentators. Safely locked up in the cabinet, while fear – it’s more potent sibling was let loose to win the day

2) Actual behaviour trumps claimed behaviour

A real issue for market researchers and anyone trying to get a read on future intentions. What we actually do is often different from what we think we will do. Or (and this matters) what we are prepared to say to others we’ll do. Clearly when in the privacy of the polling booth a lot more of us actually voted for the Tories than said we would when asked. Even when asked on the way out of the polling station afterwards! (A phenomenon called “differential non-response” by the way). That’s why in lots of our work we emphasise the real behavioural data (like duplication of purchase) to show brand strength, rather than claimed behaviour in surveys.

3) Memory structures (and trusted brands) are built over time but can be lost in moments

Think of the Liberal Democrats. What comes to mind? Given the history of the party, likely to be a fuzzy mixture of things in a left–of-centre way. How does that square with their recent history as coalition partners with the Tories in a government that’s seen by many as the architect of austerity?  By contrast, the Tories fought the election on their core (tax-cutting; Euro-sceptic; fiscally prudent) which people know and understand. Arguably the clearest party (the SNP) triumphed. We call this phenomenon “brain share” in our work with brands.

4) We’re far more influenced by others than we care to admit

From our work with brands & marketing science we know that most of the time people are “satisfiers” –i.e. good enough is OK. We don’t go to much trouble to seek out one brand if there’s a nearer decent alternative to buy instead. And one helpful guide to what’s decent is to copy what other people are doing. Translated into political parties, it means that the party with the best local machine will usually win. Activists calling on voters, talking up candidates and owning local issues. Door by door, street by street. Getting out the vote on polling day. This is why UKIP have struggled to get traction – (“too new and unfamiliar”) Why Labour lost Scotland – (“we never see them around anymore”). And why by contrast the SNP soared. They have been steadily improving local presence as the party of government in the Scottish assembly and with the hard-fought independence campaign. They’ve moved from the fringes to become the “normal” thing to do in Scotland. It’s also why the party with potentially the worst word of mouth (the Liberal Democrats) have taken the biggest beating.

It also means that this election result was written in the stars not during the campaign but over the past 5 years and before. And that when the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats talk about re-building they have probably not yet understood the half of it.  Hope might spring eternal, but trust has to be earned.