At what stage of the product life cycle are Canada’s political parties?
Alex Marland (Memorial University) has published about political marketing in the Journal of Public Affairs, political talk radio in Media, Culture and Society, and about Newfoundland nationalism in the International Journal of Canadian Studies.
One of the many things that marketers look at when they assess a product or service is its stage in the product life cycle. Now, politics is not really a product, and a politician is a human being. Think of politics more as a service, where politicians are franchisees of a larger organization. In the past I have likened election candidates to realtors (i.e., real estate agents) who work under a major brand label that helps promote their services. However lately I have been thinking about what a Canadian party strategist recently told me: that politicians are more like dentists, because they provide a necessary service that causes some people distress.
There are four elements to the product life cycle: introduction, growth, maturity and decline. This traces a product from its development and launch through to gradual market acceptance. Then competition gets more challenging and demand for the product starts levelling off. Eventually the product fills a niche in the market, has to be re-launched, or expires altogether.
Using the product life cycle lens, what might we say about Canada’s federal political parties in 2011? Some context is provided below to help you arrive at your own observations.
The history of this party is full of incidences of passing through the product life cycle. It has changed its name multiple times, including being known as the Liberal-Conservatives, Unionist, the ‘National Liberal and Conservative Party’, Progressive Conservative, and, since 2004, Conservative. There have also been offshoots, most recently Reform and then the Canadian Alliance. In elections this party has experienced the highest of highs (Macdonald’s majorities, Diefenbaker in 1958, Mulroney in 1984) and the lowest of lows (winning just two seats in 1993). This is because it fractures apart and succeeds only when the Liberal party falters. Its market potential is limited when its emphasis is on right-of-centre voters and its potential grows when it seeks to reach median voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
The ‘new’ Conservative party was announced in late 2003 and was launched when Stephen Harper became its first leader in 2004. It has been going through a growth phase ever since and has been the market leader since 2006. The question about its life cycle is whether this political product has matured or not. If the Conservatives can achieve a majority government then the party will have continued to grow, notwithstanding various bumps in the road along the way. But it is difficult to imagine a governing party being satisfied with forming yet another minority government. If the Conservatives secure a third consecutive minority then an argument could be made that the party has levelled off and that a new approach, not just hypersegmentation, will be needed to avoid entering a period of product decline.
Key question: What is the market peak for the Conservatives?
As any student of Canadian politics knows the Liberal party has enjoyed a prolonged life cycle. It barely existed at Confederation and its introduction and growth phase began with Wilfred Laurier. Throughout the 20th century the party was in a sustained maturity phase whereby it regularly won majority governments and has fared no worse than forming the official opposition, to the point that the Liberal party obtained the moniker ‘Natural Governing Party’. Though it experienced its own major hiccups, usually due to serious scandals, its brand is sufficiently strong that it has never really been in decline or had to be re-launched. Certainly there have been strategic changes in leadership and marketing methods (the 1960s and 1990s come to mind) but the Liberal party has enjoyed considerable success securing votes from the political centre. This ‘big tent’ party has yet to be humbled with the type of significant election loss that causes a complete product renewal, the sort that occurs when a party is mired in the depths of opposition and faces further losses without major and potentially risky change, the kind that party members vex about.
The Liberal party has gone through a number of product adjustments since 2003 and its results in recent elections, both percentage of the vote and seat count, suggest that this is a party that has matured and is in the decline phase. Once a party of stability, it has now had three leaders in five years, and the current one did not even receive members’ endorsement in a leadership convention. Marketers have tinkered with the Liberal brand mark (logo) and notwithstanding the 2008 green shift policy it isn’t abundantly clear what unique service is being offered or even what the compelling reasons are for choosing the Liberal product. The public input that the party received at its ‘thinkers’ conference’ in March 2010 is indicative that new leader Michael Ignatieff recognizes that the party cannot rely on its weakened brand and that it badly needs some redevelopment. Being a market challenger means needing to convince people that you offer a better product than the one that consumers are currently using. The Liberals need to provide compelling incentives to reassure electors that switching political products is worth the risk.
Key question: What does the Liberal party need to do to grow?
In political marketing the Bloc Québécois is one of the only instances that Canada ever gets mentioned internationally. This is because the Bloc is an excellent case of a niche product. It was introduced as a party that would only seek support in Quebec, it has not wavered in its core product of defending Quebec values (though those are subject to change including when support for separatism is in flux), and it has maintained a solid leadership presence with current leader Gilles Duceppe having also been the party’s first MP. This is a party that passed through the introduction and growth phases very quickly in the early 1990s and ever since has been nestled in the maturity phase with a reasonably consistent level of support. Its decline has often been prophesized but its ability to continue as a protest party has been remarkable... and is also an indication that none of the parties seeking to form the federal government have been able to offer a more competitive product in the Quebec electoral marketplace.
There is little reason to think that the Bloc Québécois won’t continue to maintain its niche product status in the near future. There is simply no indication that the federal parties will be able to displace it and convince Bloc supporters to give up on a product that, to some, has delivered value and is familiar. Its brand as the representative of Quebec values is very difficult to challenge particularly for non-Francophone party leaders. The other parties may not be able to encroach upon the Bloc’s niche market until its current leader retires and/or until they have their own leader who can communicate renewal within Quebec. The guessing game of when this party will disappear continues.
Key question: What will cause the Bloc Québécois to decline?
NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The roots of the New Democratic Party are in a niche product of democratic socialism. Going back to the 1933 Regina Manifesto and the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and the rebranding of that party into the NDP in 1961 through a formal alliance with organized labour, this party has apparently been satisfied with being Parliament’s so-called ‘moral conscience’. Unlike the Conservative party, it has been unwilling to grow its market share by adjusting its core product and appealing to the median voter. Thus it has occupied an unmoving status as a market follower: it has never even formed the official opposition in Ottawa.
Under leader Jack Layton the NDP has modernized and a case could be made that it has subtly experienced a mild re-launch. In the 2008 campaign the party adopted a number of mainstream approaches, including promoting their leader as a candidate for PM, and it occasionally touches on soft populist principles, such as ending taxes on home heating fuel, that have appeal beyond the political left. Talk of renaming the party is common and high level officials have mused about a merger with the Liberal party. There are at least two election outcomes that would move the NDP away from its current position as a pan-Canadian niche party. One is if it succeeds in convincing enough so-called “Layton Liberals” (i.e., median voters) to vote NDP that it challenges to form the official opposition (in such a case the party would be well advised to pull 'red Tories' away from the Conservatives and the Bloc). The other outcome is that it fares so poorly that the party membership, after much soul-searching, recognizes that it is time to engage in a major re-launch, something akin to Tony Blair’s ‘new Labour’ in the UK. This is a party that went through one product life cycle as the CCF and, notwithstanding recent seat gains, there are long-term signs that its current incarnation is in decline or else that it has settled into its commonly perceived niche role as a party that is unable to challenge the market leader.
Key question: What circumstances would be needed for the NDP to consider a product re-launch?
The Green Party is what political science often dismisses as a ‘fringe’ party. That was certainly true a decade ago but under the new party financing regime that since 2004 has rewarded parties for obtaining votes, not necessarily seats, the Greens have professionalized considerably. They still have never elected an MP and even if they do they will not be able to break into the mainstream until they can shake their positioning as a party that for many electors appears to offer little more than a micro-niche product of environmentalism and a “none of the above” brand. As with the NDP, and unlike the Bloc Québécois, they are seriously disadvantaged by the electoral system which is a harsh reality of the electoral marketplace that they must adapt to.
A very rosy view of the Green Party is that it is in a growth phase. The presence of leader Elizabeth May in the 2008 election debates and the continued possibility that she may finally win a seat are examples that the party is growing. If it goes on to be reasonably successful (i.e., wins at least the 12 seats needed for party status in the House of Commons) then we would look back at 2011 and say that the Greens were in the introduction phase of the product life cycle. But a more realistic view is that the party needs to do more than just compete for votes primarily for financial reasons. If it doesn’t get a breakthrough soon we could consider it a mature product that has nestled into a role as a fringe outsider, albeit a well-financed one.
Key question: Is the Green party’s growth necessarily tied to the existence of party subsidies?