As the reviews and anecdotes passed by in the dead zone between the post-Christmas / Pre-New Year blues, any number of correspondents offered their perspectives on the year when unpredicted reactions rocked our world alongside the passing of many a music icon. I say ‘unpredicted’ but it is perhaps more accurate and honest to admit to them being wrongly predicted. While no-one could predict a year where David Bowie, Prince and George Michael left us, it is perhaps symptomatic of the period we are entering that many of our teenage heroes are due to shuffle off. However with the many millions spent on market research forecasting the results of the EU Referendum vote and the US Presidential election, as a market researcher I was perhaps more shocked than many the morning after those specific events.
The question 2016 leaves me pondering is whether the pollsters got things wrong again or whether something more fundamental is being witnessed by these results.
What struck me was that in both cases the protagonists who won through, did so not by skilful rhetoric or persuasive argument – anything but this to be honest! No, it was more the fact that the sides which won out did two things – they tapped into a sentiment which was powerfully communicative to sections of the electorate who had been broadly overlooked or neglected by pollsters, as well as politicians, and they repeated a ‘mantra-like’ argument of such startling simplicity that it became ingrained in people’s minds. These themes around ‘taking back control of immigration’ and ‘making America great again’ were not backed up by fact or anything close to it, but they dominated the conversation to such an extent that critiques and counter arguments were simply out-shouted. Indeed the attempts to rebut the dominant argument actually only succeeded in adding to the context of the largely uninformed opinion upon which the winning sides arguments were based.
So if there are lessons to be learned from 2016 as a more commercially focused consumer research consultancy, it underlines the importance of uncovering the latent story that a majority of the electorate; market or target will respond to. Relating to this strategy with simple communication lines and compellingly simple propositions may have a much stronger cut through, if the lessons of 2016 are a guide to the way mass communication could work.
In the UK the Brexit vote revealed a deeply divided society. One divided by age and social class and geography. The North : South divide which, lets face it has always been there, is once again a huge talking point because the voting maps showed the stark contrast for all to see. The real significance is the new more obvious polarisation we now have in our society. Clients of The Buzzz used to agree with our perspective that as consumers there was little difference in behaviour and attitude between North and South as consumerism championed over regionalism. However we are becoming increasingly aware of new differences emerging on a regional basis and certainly from this year, depending on project focus and strategy we will be reinstating this dimension to proposals.
Increasingly this polarisation is also reinforced by our media consumption. Online news and social media enable us to live in a self-defined bubble, meeting only those who share and reinforce our views, or like our posts and tweets. Also reinforcing the impact is the fact that the unequal distribution of income and opportunity coming from ‘globalisation’ has built on the perceptions of a political and financial elite who can effectively prejudice the system in their favour. From as far back as the expenses scandal in 2009 there have been numerous confirmations that the elite are in it for themselves – what say you Sir Phillip Green from on board your brand new superyacht?
In making these points The Buzzz believe the valuable insight to gained from the successes of the Brexiteers (if you remember who they were) and the Trump campaign is that as with any mass communication the success was a result of careful insight, strategy, messaging and leadership. Both these campaigns were seen after the event to have better understood their voters, to have forced the conversation onto their territory, and had had a clarity of message and, whatever your personal views, a charismatic messenger who injected some passion and stirred up an emotional response to those willing to listen.
So we believe our 2017 refocus and message to our current and future clients should be:
1. Understand and get to intimately know your audience. The days where we could generalise with an assumption that we understand how people think or make decisions should be confined to the Room 101 of the 1980’s world of advertising. We believe that real Customer insight gained through more intimate contact and enabled by technological methodology should be seen as a brands most valuable investment.
2. Understand you are now operating in a world where cynicism, resentment and doubts over competence are much closer to the surface when consumers think about new products, ideas or communication. Brands need to show some humility and earn back the trust they may have taken for granted in the recent past. They need to take a step towards their consumers to understand their role, rather than stand back and promise the world.
3. Understand that logic and reason or rationality are not as effective in rebuttal or persuasion as a simple and emotion filled platform. Any insight work needs to focus on the emotional context of the relationship a brand has with a consumer because …
4. This allows the brand to take the lead again in what is an increasing scramble to dominate the conversation. The search or purpose in fact, is now about finding a more compelling story to tell and making it simple enough to even rise to the status of mantra. It is this final element which returns us as marketeers and brand specialists to the creative mastery of the storyline and headline.
So perhaps a positive take on the two huge shocks of last year is that effective messaging isn’t arrived at by accident, it flows from deep insight, is located in a clear strategy, and is tested to refine and sharpen its impact. After all the perception of Trump was consistently of a campaign in chaos, yet day after day he delivered powerful messaging – “Make America Great Again” – which a largely overlooked section of society responded to in the face of significant middle class and highly moralised opposition. Similarly in the UK we saw the power of “Take back control” as a message which won the day over far more complex arguments about damage to the economy and loss of income.
Simplicity overcomes complexity when emotions run high.