Science lessons for the Westminster elite

Success in engaging voter sentiment is probably more complex than the parties realise, says Adam Mack.

Success in engaging voter sentiment is probably more complex than the parties realise, says Adam Mack, Weber Shandwick’s Chief Strategy Officer. Adam has taken our ground breaking research, the Science of Engagement, and used it to analyse the way politicians are engaging with voters in the run up to the General Election.

By way of introduction, the Science of Engagement project involved us working closely with 3 leading academics – a neuroscientist, a behavioural psychologist and an anthropologist – to understand what it is that makes people engage and change their behaviour.

More specifically, Mssrs Ramsøy, Oullier and McCracken helped us identify the 10 principles and 19 ‘Elements’ of engagement – the fundamental building blocks on which engagement is built. To date we have applied this thinking to brands, to employers and to cities. This is its first foray into politics.

With only 6 weeks to go before the election, it may be a little late for political strategists to learn from these observations but my aim is merely to paint a picture of what is and isn’t to play for.

  1. The sexless election

Aesthetics, Desire, Newness and Pleasure are all critical elements of engagement. They are what we call ‘Caveman’ elements that work on instinct and gut. In politics they amount to ‘aura’, ‘sex appeal’ and ‘likeability’. In elections past they may have been election-winning – Obama, Clinton, Blair (and even Clegg in 2010) benefitted significantly from natural aura, freshness and sex appeal. This year, though (especially in the absence of Boris Johnson) there is no ‘breakthrough’ candidate with the advantage, with the possible exception of Nigel Farage, although his affability is being seen as increasingly ‘faux’ and UKIP’s policies make his appeal niche. In short, this is the sexless election.

  1. No party enjoys ‘herd’ status

I called the Independence Referendum based on a couple of things – one was that the ‘Undecideds’ would make a last minute scramble to follow the herd of the ‘No’ majority. This is based on the science that the Caveman system of the brain (System 1) is wired to seek safety or food in numbers – at the time I wrote my piece, the No lead was 10 points and this was enough for ‘herd status’. In the case of this election, which is evidently going to be very close, Herd Behaviour is unlikely to be a major factor – gains and gaps will likely be too marginal and too small to create any kind of momentum for any party. No party (or even grouping of parties) is likely to enjoy herd status.

  1. An integrity stalemate

Integrity and Respect are two elements that are central to deep engagement, and clearly two elements on which all politicians have taken a battering. Thanks to the expenses scandal (and more recently Straw and Rifkind) there is a general perception that all parties and politicians are to some extent tarred by the same Westminster brush – winning the battle for these elements is a long game that will not be won in 6 weeks, even a year, and will require collaboration and consensus to achieve (something that will not feature in an election). We have an integrity stalemate.

  1. An election of the heart

People vote as much with their hearts as their heads – in this election, though, where the rational choice is so complex and where no party is painting the future as rosy, the heart becomes more important. This kind of emotional engagement is underpinned by two elements: Associations and Experience. The former are those subconscious feelings voters have accumulated about the parties over a lifetime (often taken from their parents) and the latter is voters’ first-hand experience of being governed by each party (most voters will have negative and positive experiences of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem). The brain is above all an efficient mechanism – where message and choice is complex, it will use emotional instincts to ease its decision. This will be an election of the heart.

  1. The nomad electorate

The most powerful engagement element from a branding perspective is Belonging – the sense that a brand belongs to us and that we belong in its world. Brands that tap this correctly are much more likely to unlock sales. This is also linked to Shared Values (a sense that the brand stands for what we believe in) and Empathy (a shared understanding). This area is even more critical to politics than brands – indeed, politics is built around parties to which people literally belong. And yet none of the parties at this election (with the exception, perhaps, of UKIP) have been able to extend this sense of belonging beyond their own partisan supporters. For the large part, the electorate are nomads wandering the political landscape looking for and failing to find somewhere to belong.

  1. Pragmatic visionaries

Since Homo became Sapiens, we have been on a perpetual quest for meaning – from Aristotle to Isis, philosophy and religion are simply attempts to make our time on earth feel more meaningful. It is hard for parties to paint a positive and compelling vision of the future with such pressing short-term economic issues but voters need to see Meaning and they are not seeing it clearly. Of all people, Mr Gove has seen this with his plea to David Cameron to position the Tories as ‘warriors for social justice’ – other parties should be clearer about what they mean in the current era. But this meaning needs to be tied to a very clear sense of ‘what this means for me’ since people are driven by Enhancement (their need to self-improve). Party spokespeople must be pragmatic visionaries, tying what they stand for to tangible and clear impacts.

So, when all is stripped away, with 6 weeks to go, the ‘science’ says that parties need above all to think heartstrings not grey matter and twin a compelling vision of what they stand for with a clear expression of what this means in the day-to-day lives of voters.