A Vote for the Disruptors

The British electorate is abandoning the big brands
Could proposition DESIGN thinking have saved them?


May 2015

Few big businesses ever face quite such a dramatic change in their customer base, but on 7th May 2015, the major UK political parties could experience a massive switching day. At this year's General Election, their 'customer churn' could go through the roof. And after many predictions that voters would begin to shop around more, like true consumers, it seems that this time it could happen on a grand scale. Smaller challenger brands might not take many seats, but they're disrupting the norms by influencing policy of the established parties. So how did the big boys become so vulnerable to rapid change in their power, and could it have been avoided?

Most businesses have challenges coming their way. Disruption from new technologies, regulatory change, evolving consumer lifestyles. The shifts begin slowly, as those innovator customers are just experimenting. Only a minority of new ideas take hold. So the difficulty is knowing when to act, when the seeds of change really take hold and become mass movements.

10 years ago, UKIP could be dismissed as a protest vote, an irrelevant upstart (or start-up?) by some. This year, as their share of the vote (or at least voter intention) has crept up, they have been participating in mainstream TV debates and seem to be affecting the policy features of the established parties. Until very recently, the SNP attracted around a respectable 20% of votes, but nothing close to the 49% of voting intentions today. 

How many markets have challenger businesses that start small, then suddenly seems to accelerate and take over part of the market? And how should we respond? How do we know whether to stand firm, imitate them, or come up with an alternative new proposition?

First, we need to understand what is going on from a customer's perspective? What is the frustration? What are typical voters saying to each other in the pub about What's Wrong With The World? 

Maybe we have a perfect storm of frustrations:

  • An economic crisis where the many seem to have paid the price for the actions of the few.
  • A (not unrelated) widening gap perceived between a super-wealthy elite and stagnant living standards of the average Briton.
  • Parliamentary scandals of expenses and payment for influence.
  • A sense that traditional institutions don't represent modern British voters.
  • A discomfort with the scale of international influence over local communities.
  • A perception of declining equality of opportunity and social mobility.
  • A feeling that big media and big business can do wrong and still get away with it, still be better off, whilst ordinary people do the right things for mixed reward.
  • Perhaps a generation worse off than its parents for the first time in modern history.

Are these all true? It probably doesn't matter. Just like the perceived frustrations in any market. Depending on your political colours, you might interpret those trends differently (I'm a one-time economist, so I'll sit on the fence!). But how does it translate to conversation in the pub, to everyday frustrations? 

In short, it sounds a bit like this: "Those people aren't like me. They don't seem to care about the things I do. Life has changed, but they aren’t fixing the big problems we're facing".

Those voters look at the big political party brands, and some still find a home, but increasing numbers are take a punt on new players. A once very stable market, with 2 dominant players, has been disrupted and the new competitors are growing fast.

Some will say, wasn't it always so? People get frustrated with most big brands eventually. Politicians have never been loved. But there will have been voices saying change was needed in the major parties. Party membership is down to less than 1% of the population, trust in MPs runs at just 26% of the electorate. No doubt, net promoter scores would make grim reading, as we see in the personal ratings of the leaders.


How to respond?

Perhaps the big parties needed to return to being 'big tents', including a broader range of views - a broader product policy portfolio that heads off new niche alternatives before they gained a foothold?

Possibly there should have been new spin-off brands, without the same associations of the declining main brand. Some Conservatives considered this in Scotland ('Scotland United' perhaps?!).

Or maybe a reinvention of the proposition of the core brand? New Labour in the 1990s symbolically dropped its constitutional claim to 'common ownership of the means of production...'. Whilst this old-school socialist policy hadn't been a 'real' policy feature of the brand for some time, it sent a signal to the party and public that Labour had changed and moved to the centre.

By doing this, they re-gained the mass-market - the only place where real power and influence lies, and real opportunity to improve lives for the many not the few.


So what do the current political disruptors tell us?

1. Be more single-minded about your big idea. And be very clearly pro- or anti-something. 

In a world of constant information, you need to cut-through more than ever. People won't be reading your manifestos (nor your business strategy or full 'product feature' details), nor notice increasingly bland campaign slogans. 

Thatcher’s free market vision was once distinctive and disruptive enough to break with the conventions of the past. New Labour's 5 pledges in 1997 were close (a well-defined set of product features). 

UKIP and the SNP have even clearer, single-minded goals. And both the SNP and UKIP play on the idea of Westminster (or Brussels) as an outdated, remote land. This despite sending elected representatives there, able to exercise influence and vote democratically on laws that affect them. They create a perception of breaking with the system they're part of (the Liberal Democrats used a similarly successful pitch in 2010).

2. A party needs to reach beyond the usual activists, not talk 'at' people.

UKIP and the SNP have created more of a movement for a certain type of change than the big brand parties. They've built support at grassroots level, just like Labour once did and all parties still claim to.

Instead of shouting at people with conventional advertising campaigns alone, the SNP revitalised local campaigning during the 'Yes' campaign. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/scottish-independence-vote-supporters-are-biggest-grassroots-movement-9457481.html

3. Go to where your new voters/customers are.

However strong your local campaigns, some of the important switchers are unlikely to be at traditional hustings, neither are they even at the supermarket as much as they once were. They haven't got time. They're shortcutting. Going online.

Everyday debate is still in the pub, but it's also on social media, and the big political brands are barely there. Again, the Yes campaign in Scotland used a combination of new kind of local meetings and strong social media presence http://www.velocitydigital.co.uk/whos-winning-indyref-social-media-battle-now/ 

And, of course, Nigel Farage will often be found in the pub, rather than Westminster - at least when he invites the media to watch.

4. Innovate and prototype your policies and evolve them fast.

This will be risky. You will end up with some crazy ones (see some of UKIP's more 'unusual' past policies), but the good ones might stick and form something much more relevant to voters today.


So could proposition design principles still re-invent the big political brands? 

1. New insights to uncover your big need

Use new techniques to understand the truth underneath the surface level frustrations. Yes, we know parties use focus groups, but this requires more innovative data analysis and customer behaviour insight tools, used right across the country to identify what's changed about the needs of voters.

Starting out, bringing up a family and getting old have always been a challenge. But what's different today? What's really missing? 

2. Co-create a more distinctive and optimistic single-minded proposition 

Fix something that's perceived to be broken - for UKIP this is the EU, for the SNP, an outdated Westminster bogeyman.

The standard party conference and Westminster bubble (see away days and corporate HQ) doesn't involve enough real people with diverse backgrounds, nor enough experts in their field, to 'co-create' designs for the future.

Generate policy ideas (product features) from the whole of the electorate - face-to-face and using digital channels - get people problem-solving together, building on ideas. Get them to work these into joined-up mini manifesto propositions that appeal to a mass-market centre.

3. Design a digital party and parliament

There's no getting away from this. Parliament has served us well historically, but it doesn't reflect modern Britain in its composition and ways of working. This is a big restructuring and transformation project.

There are a million reasons why change comes with risk and might be complicated to build, but digital voting and participation will come. We have to challenge the objections to make it work; within Westminster, and amongst the wider electorate. We need to find an electoral system that reflects the new reality.

4. Drop grand conferences and prototype faster 

Move on from stuffy new policy development, and try more rapid iteration of policy innovation. Openly test out more radical ideas, and share the results more widely so everyone can see what's working and move on.

At Wired Health, the NHS Innovation Director recently outlined an approach to innovation rooted in faster 'test and learn' local initiatives rather than grand programmes. 

It's still important to be thoughtful, to be sure about the real customer problem you're trying to solve. It's critical to base innovations on fact. But our rapid access to ideas and evidence from across the world, makes product evolution easier than ever. 


New tribes or a new centre?


Just like supermarket brand loyalty used to be an easy way to categorise British people and their behaviour, it had once seemed so simple in politics. But customers vote with their feet every day in business. And increasingly consumer switching has either established or been promoted (think energy, telecoms, banking). Previous generations maintained their allegiances to big brands. Older people still tend to. Choices were different before in an internet-enabled world of information and shopping at any time, any place.

Although people can pick and choose, although they can exercise that right, that doesn't mean they always want to. Most will still feel most comfortable gathering around a new mainstream, a new centre, around trusted brands they know. But if no-one stands in that new centre, the hole can just gets bigger. People are pushed to the edges.

Whatever happens on 7th May, it seems likely that the disruption will continue for a while yet, and the main parties may have to choose to adapt or struggle along as they are. As with any big organisation, they became big by getting it right, by understanding their mass-market voters as they changed over time. The most successful brands recognise you have to be an active part of the conversation that's now connected across the nation.

The parties can become big tents again, with smarter innovation and a clearer proposition for the future. When voters are consistently demanding alternatives, there is a clear threat to the survival of a conventional model. Political necessity, it seems, might well be the mother of party re-invention. 


Richard Warmsley

May 2015 (updated July 2016)