May's refusal to engage electorate is a warning for brands that spurn dialogue

May's refusal to engage electorate is a warning for brands that spurn dialogue

Theresa May's titanic election own goal is further proof that smart brands must engage with and listen to their audiences, Grant Feller argues.

Yesterday, I was both blocked on Twitter and entered into an enlightening conversation. Not an unusual experience but one that encapsulates our current national crisis of confidence.

It helps explain why the Conservatives spectacularly failed, why media commentators consistently predicted the wrong result and why the out-of-touch political-media nexus should look to brand marketers for inspiration.

First, my conversation. British Gas has sent me wildly inaccurate bills for weeks and I’ve been knocked from pillar to post to find the right person to sort it out.

After an exasperated tweet, a direct message was sent to me from a named member of staff trying to understand my problem, promising to – and succeeding in – sorting it out within a couple of hours. I moaned, they listened, engaged and acted.

Then, I conversed with the BBC’s eternally-humble world affairs editor John Simpson who tweeted: "I suspect we’ve seen the end of the tabloids as arbiters of UK politics. Sun, Mail and Express threw all they had into backing May and failed."

Having consumed most of the weekend papers – and watched the subsequent political panel shows on TV – I noted that almost every assessment of the campaign came from someone white, middle class and over 45.

I responded to Simpson thus: "Suspect we’ve also seen end of reliance on self-important, middle-aged, middle-class journos who poorly interpret/predict behaviours/events."

I moaned, he chose not to listen and refused to engage by blocking me. I admit I was wrong.

I really shouldn’t have called the public school-educated, Cambridge graduate, single-company career pensioner middle-aged. I apologise.

What successful establishment figures such as Simpson and May don’t understand is that the environment in which they operate has changed so fundamentally as to be unrecognisable to their 20th century modi operandi.

The digitisation of society and culture doesn’t simply mean that we are connected to each other in myriad ways.

Simpson, May and their journalistic and political colleagues understand that. What they find more uncomfortable – and what my small British Gas experience showed – is that those connections are not static but electrified with disruptive power.

By refusing to engage, whether through personal or robot-enhanced messages, they look defiantly arrogant, out of touch and insensitive.

Hyper-fast connectivity now means that the authors and receivers of messages – tweets, stories or political policies – need to listen and not just tell.

A lot of brands have made huge strides in this direction – many more, sadly, continue to fail.

The recent British Airways debacle exposed a company and its leader as arrogant, out of touch and insensitive because they tried to solve fast-moving chaos by using old-fashioned communications techniques that sought to control, rather than engage in digitised conversations. They told but didn't listen.

The smartest brands are using conversational ads on Twitter to engage with loyal customers and entice new ones. They’re investing billions in computer bots, augmented and artificial intelligence to tailor messages with individuals and larger groups that share similar traits and tastes.

Always-on attitudes mean that brands don’t just respond but go out of their way to have conversations with consumers. And they are not just using tired old homepages and Facebook channels to connect with audiences – the top four messaging apps like Kik and WhatsApp now have more users than the top four social networks combined.

Brand marketing is at the vanguard of a new conversational engagement that listens as much as it tells, that admits when all has not gone according to plan and tries to figure out solutions, that sees digital connectivity as something that must be constantly nurtured rather than switched on and off at a whim.

The reasons for Theresa May’s titanic catastrophe are manifold but one of the core strategic mistakes was not to engage and embrace the fluidity of circumstance, as all great leaders must.

Her bizarre refusal to admit the "dementia tax" u-turn, her robotic "strong and stable" line, reluctance to enter into debate and a deluded address to the nation from Downing Street on Friday represent just the tip of her self-made iceberg.

Equally, the thin-skinned and undeniably self-important phalanx of middle-aged, middle-class media commentators who rarely venture out of their cosy bubbles need to listen and engage, not just tell.

May’s communications performance during this election was misinformed, arrogant and unresponsive.

As they try to put a mirror up to her failings to connect with a wider audience, I’m not surprised that media personalities such as John Simpson are unable to spot their own reflections staring back at them.

Grant Feller is a director of GF Media and former executive at the Daily Mail and Daily Express.

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