Market Orientation & Research

New Labour taught us all a lesson

Once upon a time, in an era before New Labour, marketers had very little to learn from politicians. A couple of good slogans from the Saatchis perhaps, but nothing more. How times changed.

The success of New Labour may have been kick-started by the Party hierarchy's consultation with a number of top advertising agencies, but 10 years later it is the marketers who can learn an enormous amount from the politicians. New Labour remains well ahead of most companies when it comes to marketing.

Let's start with market orientation, the most fundamental of marketing philosophies. Many organisations continue to develop strategy based on their assumptions about the market and the existing products they want to sell. The success of New Labour was built on placing political beliefs and assumptions on hold and first going to the electorate to understand their needs and aspirations. Only then were policies formed and strategies created. If only more marketers could be bold enough to place strategy on the shelf and learn to listen to consumers as intently as Blair did back in 1996.

New Labour also offers us a key lesson on the two paradigms of market research and the need to employ both for true market understanding. Politics had been dominated by quantitative polling for half a century. It was New Labour that instigated an equal measure of qualitative research through focus groups. This revolutionised Labour's ability to connect with voters.

Too many companies are dependent on quantitative surveys and thus miss the more immediate, inductive insights that qualitative research reveals. Labour marketing guru Philip Gould acknowledged the impact of focus groups in his 1999 book The Unfinished Revolution: 'I nearly always learn something new and surprising. People do not think in traditional ways or conform to conventional prejudice. In a group it is possible to test out the strength and depth of feeling about an issue, which can be more difficult, although not impossible, in a conventional poll.'

New Labour and Gould were also ahead of the marketing curve when it came to positioning. Thanks to his regular focus groups, Gould learned quickly the power of tight, simple positioning. 'Research revealed that the public wanted smaller, more concrete pledges,' he said. Rather than complex manifestos and detailed promises, New Labour was positioned on five simple pledges. Most brands continue to develop over-complex positioning statements. New Labour's tighter approach and ensuing success provides clear evidence of the central credo of all positioning jobs: less is more.

Marketers can also learn from New Labour's emphasis on PR over and above advertising. Prior to 1997, political communication was very much about election advertising and the dreaded party political broadcast. New Labour exemplified proactive PR like no other organisation in political history thanks to a now legendary team headed by Alistair Campbell. Internally, New Labour controlled who was able to talk to the media and what was said with the totalitarian use of key messages. Externally, Campbell's team excelled at building relationships with the media and using exclusives and briefings to their full effect. The lesson for companies is not to fixate on ads and to appreciate PR for what it often is: a cheaper but far more effective form of brand communication. A great internal PR chief like Campbell is worth his weight in gold.

Tony Blair may not have had any firm principles and his legacy will probably be damaged beyond all repair by the war in Iraq and his disastrous relationship with George W Bush. As a politician, he probably will go down as a failure. But as a marketer, his legend lives on.