Despite today’s age of connectivity, participatory digital communities, and online knowledge sharing, political dialogue and engagement remain bleak. As populations of individuals witness the introduction of radical anti-terrorism bills, the passing of detrimental environmental policies, or continual human rights violations, yet choose not to engage directly with politicians and political structures, a deeper challenge emerges.
In countries spanning the globe, voter turnout is at a shocking low. In the last midterm election in the US, only 36.4% of people voted: the lowest it’s been in any election cycle since World War II. In the UK, a recent Hansard Society study indicated that just 12% of young people plan to vote in the 2015 general election. To explore this issue, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 47% of respondents said they were “angry” with politicians and 64% said they don’t believe what politicians say. When the popularity of YouTube videos of dancing cats outweigh critical political dialogue, it’s time to realize we are facing a crisis of political faith.
How might we leverage a citizen-centered lens to solve for the political engagement crisis? In what ways could politicians learn from their citizens and serve their populations with greater empathy?
In the world of design thinking, consumer-centered marketing, human-centered design, and patient-centered solutions are household phrases. More and more, companies are realizing the absolute need and value of putting people first in order to succeed as a business. In understanding human emotions, behaviors, and desires, brands unlock infinite opportunities to deliver meaningful products and services while generating greater revenue.
01 Strong brands have clear purpose.
Brands that have some of the highest levels of consumer engagement are those that have a clear purpose and succinct articulation of that purpose. Essentially, they know their “why.” Simon Sinek, leadership expert and author of bestseller Start With Why has a powerful message about the significance of not expressing what you offer as a company or how you offer it – rather, why you offer it, or why you exist as a company. It is this spark and core belief in why you do what you do as an organization that generates loyalty from within and without. To sell their products and services, Apple does not claim to make really great computers that are beautifully designed and easy to use. Instead, Apple says, “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo and we believe in thinking differently. The way we do that is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make really great computers.”
In applying this to politics, parties need to help their citizens understand their core why. We need a clear articulation of – at the foundational level – what differentiates one party’s purpose from another. Why are the people in those parties are so deeply committed to doing what they do? The why will invigorate and energize people both within and outside of the party to also believe in that shared purpose.
02 Consumers buy experiences, not commodities.
Millennial research shows that Gen Y-ers engage most highly with brands that offer experiential products or services. The experience of being inside a store or a restaurant – its interior design, ambiance, demeanor of staff – is just as important as the products sold or the meal served. According to the 2014 Brand Keys Loyalty Leaders List, traditional retail brands were down 50% last year in part because of their inability to provide meaningful differentiation beyond low pricing strategies. When a company can deliver additional value beyond just the product or service through wrap-around experiences, they have a higher likelihood of sticking around. This means putting effort into understanding customers and delivering interesting events or memorable moments that fit into the context of those customers’ lives.
The hit Disney TV show Dr. McStuffin, about a six year-old girl who heals toys, used experiential marketing to promote the upcoming second series and increase merchandise sales. Disney recreated Doc’s clinic in Tesco, Smyths, and Toys R Us in the UK, where kids were given a 10-minute immersive experience taking on the role of Doc and diagnosing Big Ted, a large stuffed bear. The experience allowed the children to play with the merchandise in a creative way and resulted in a 5.3% increase in the propensity to buy merchandise.
For political parties to have lasting value and gain the support of citizens, the focus must move beyond selling platforms or policies – they need to engage with their citizens in a meaningful way. For example, outside of speeches or conventions where only a small proportion of existing advocates attend, how might they find the spaces and places where their people are, and deliver a memorable experience there?
03 Brand loyalty is driven by emotional engagement.
The paradox of choice means that consumers can no longer make decisions purely based on functional or rational criteria. We are far too inundated with content and data on a day-to-day basis to sift through hundreds of shampoos on the shelf, selecting purely by ingredient list. A recent piece by Forbes (“Which Brands Have the Most Loyal Customers”) cited customers to be “looking harder for a reason to believe and a reason to engage with – and buy – one brand versus a myriad of ‘me-too’ products.” The brands that grab the attention of their consumers make a compelling story with an emotional narrative that consumers can connect to. Dove, for example, is a master at storytelling, as seen in the launch of its Real Beauty campaigns that speak to how women truly feel about their bodies and provide open conversations through short films, workshops, and events about what beautiful means. Through this, Dove has shown that it cares about under- standing what’s important to its consumers.
While political parties don’t have to fight with hundreds of competing brands, they do have to differentiate their policies in a way that citizens can emotionally resonate with. It’s far too overwhelming to skim through and objectively assess each party’s policies and platform differences. Instead, parties would benefit from focusing on developing a strong emotional reason to believe. To create that hook, they need to know who their audience is, and what that audience values and needs. Generating a compelling story and emotional narrative that speaks to citizens as human beings – not voters – could go a long way.
04 The best brands create dialogue, not one-way conversations.
As traditional 20th century hierarchical power structures dissolve, emerging generations demand that those in positions of power – both perceived or real – open themselves up to engaging in real, honest conversations. Younger consumers are distrusting of companies and brands with only one-way communication channels. This generation has grown up with the expectation that they have a right to speak, express ideas, and ask questions no matter whom they are with and who they are.
As a result of the increasing expectations of honesty and openness, companies who are transparent and don’t assume to be the expert serve their consumers much better than those who “sell down” or preach. With over 5.8 million followers and over 8,000 tweets, Virgin Mobile’s iconic CEO, Richard Branson, is a prime example of how to create conversation and connection with your audience.
The political parties and leaders who dilute the aura of inaccessibility or superiority in order to meaningfully engaging with citizens in a conversational way are well set up for success. For example, the playful use of hashtags during campaigns can be a way to connect instead of focusing on the opposition and blaming or putting them down. For politicians, successful connection means making information simple to understand. The right voice and tone speaks to citizens in a way that is neither patronizing nor demeaning – instead, inviting, approachable, and professional.
05 Consumers can sense dysfunction and therefore crave cohesion.
As highly sensual and intuitive beings, we can often sense when a group, community, or organization is not functioning well or are being dishonest. When a story leaks that a CEO does not treat his employees well, or that there are internal conflicts within a company, consumers find out and will shop elsewhere. CEO of BAV Consulting John Gerzema says, ”Transparency, honesty, kindness, good stewardship, and even humor, work in businesses at all times.” As a rule of thumb, humans have a natural tendency to want to support and cultivate cooperation. We prefer to engage with and put our trust in strong, cohesive teams that we know will work together to win, rather than a team that has the risk of falling apart due to internal disharmony or because of dishonesty.
Historically, politics has been riddled with stereotypes and stories of drama and dysfunction. Many citizens have the impression that parties and their politicians play games and are not internally aligned. On a macro-level, seeing campaigns that put down or blame the other team are contrary to this desire for cohesion. Additionally, seeing a scandal about a politician’s expense claims can cause citizens to question the integrity of the party. The result is an image that leads to distrust. Working on internal party culture, aligning on purpose, and adopting a more cooperative approach are starting points to shift citizen perceptions and behaviors.
There are definite opportunities to reassess and redesign the way that political parties integrate and engage with their citizens to address the current crisis of faith. While parties can have the most interesting and novel ideas or policies in the world, without having the support of the people behind them, they will be ineffective in making any kind of sustainable or systemic change.