Boutique vs. WalMart Campaigning
André Turcotte, Ph.D
School of Journalism and Communication
Once again, we find ourselves at the brink of an election campaign. While this is becoming a common recurrence, it is hard to imagine how the opposition parties can once again prop up the Harper government without losing the little credibility they have left. For their part, the Conservatives began their campaign several weeks ago with an aggressive ad buy and constant attacks on Michael Ignatieff. All we now need is for the Prime Minister to walk up to Rideau Hall and pay a visit to the Governor General.
Every election is hyped as "the most important in a generation." While the upcoming election is unlikely to stand out substantively, it may offer interesting insights into the new approaches to winning elections in Canada. For decades, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have formed governments by adopting a mass marketing approach to winning elections. They kept an eye on their core supporters but generally appealed to what academics refer to as the "median voter." The Harper Conservatives changed that in 2006.
As documented elsewhere (see Tom Flanagan's book Harper's Team (2007) and the upcoming Political Marketing in Canada (2012) by Lees-Marshment et al.) the strategy followed by the Harper Conservatives can be described as hyper-segmentation. They first set out to understand the composition of the political marketplace and identify the values and policy positions of certain segments of the electorate that will maximize their electoral market share. This strategy was developed after the Conservatives' disappointing showing in the 2004 election. After failing to defeat the scandal-plagued Martin Liberals, the key strategists around Stephen Harper decided to look for new ways to increase their chances of forming a government. As Ian Brodie, who was a senior member of the Conservative Team and later became Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Harper, suggested; one of the main lessons of 2004 was the necessity to develop a market intelligence structure to ensure that the campaign could be "more responsive" and "more nimble."
Their new approach was inspired by the electoral success of John Howard in Australia. Of particular interest were the ways Howard managed to end thirteen years of Labour rule in 1996. The Harper strategists studied the segmentation used by the Australian Liberal-National Coalition and its focus on what Party Leader Howard had called "the battlers" or families struggling to raise their kids on a small income. The idea behind this strategy is to use market intelligence to identify key segments of electorate and to develop a highly-targeted Voter ID initiative to ensure that voters fitting the strategic profile go out to vote. It combines the strengths of polling and tele-marketing to create a high-tech version canvassing. In 2008, the Harper Campaign successfully focused on less than half a million voters out of about 23 million eligible voters. It will focus on substantially fewer voters in the upcoming election campaign.
In 2011, the Conservative Campaign will likely zero-in on a few thousand voters in the 12 ridings they need to form a majority government. In business terms, this is like a "boutique" approach to national campaigning. The goal is to identify specific "customers"; identify their needs and preferences, offer them what they want and aggressively go after them with direct marketing and a targeted advertising campaign. This stands in contrast with what appears to be the Liberal strategy. Michael Ignatieff is promoting his Liberal "Big Tent." This looks more like a "Wal-Mart" approach to campaigning – offers lots of things to as many customers as possible, smile a lot and hope they buy your product on Election Day. In theory, this would yield a larger customer base for the Liberals but in this era of low voting turnout and disengaged voters, it is less likely to succeed.
The Conservative approach to campaigning has some repercussions. We already see some evidence in the recent television ads. While Canadians are emerging from a recession and may be waiting to see how the federal government will tackle the budget deficit, the Conservatives are running ads about illegal immigrants and Ignatieff being soft on crime. Illegal immigration and crime are by no measure "top-of-mind issues" but presumably, internal Conservative polling has identified this topic as particularly salient among their target voters. We can expect more of these types of special-interest ads as the campaign unfolds. This will leave large segments of the electorate feeling that their issue priorities are neglected; leading to more disengagement and low political participation. But if the end justifies the means, this strategy may result in a Harper majority.