Report from the UK: 2015 elections will be a digital proving ground

The upstart United Kingdom Independence Party claims it can outmaneuver the Conservative and Labour parties like digital cameras beat Kodak

Next year's U.K. general election, the first in that country to center on digital campaigns, will be captivating for marketers, writes Marketing Magazine’s Will Harris. (Read his full column here.)

LONDON — The 2015 general election here will hold special fascination for marcom professionals. They will have front-row seats at the first digital election campaign in this country — and an insider’s point of view. All the hard-won lessons marketers have learned over the past 10 years will, for the first time, be deployed on the British political battlefield.

Douglas Carswell, an ex-Conservative Party MP who switched to UKIP this year, makes explicit the connection between politics and marketing when he talks about the next election. He likens the rise of UKIP to the Parable of Kodak: Once upon a time, a veritable monopoly in the world of photography was brought to its knees by new technology and new consumer behaviors.

In the past, every moment was "a Kodak moment." Now Kodak cameras are a vanishing breed. Digital cameras arrived, and the rest (and the brand) is history.

As Carswell sees it, the Tories and the Labour Party are Kodak, and UKIP is the digital disrupter. Armed with newfangled "desktop publishing technology" (his phrase, not mine), the smaller parties are now able to disrupt and outmaneuver the bigger ones. Slow, flat-footed and out of touch with their voters, the two big parties will fall over and die. Make way for the new UKIP insurgency.

I can imagine that this line of logic works very well for people who don’t spend their lives living with the consequences of "digital disruption." The Kodak-equals-Tories fable has probably entered the lexicon of diehard UKIP supporters, who trot it out at whatever social or political occasion demands it. But it’s thin and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Kodak (and all those brands featured in other business-school case studies) fell over because those in the new guard were faster, cheaper and better — not just because they were new. If the new guard had not been better, it would not have prevailed. So, at the very outset, the UKIP promise and promisers have to be better than the Tories and Labour. This is problem Number One.

The other issue with this digital disruption business (as the brand-owners will attest) is that bad news tends to spread faster than good. Once, you could be a bad candidate riding a popular campaign, but those days are over.

Every poorly chosen bon mot, ill-judged post, photograph or tweet lives, nascent, alongside the candidate in the cyber world, biding its time until it’s ready to emerge and humble their best efforts. In short, if you are creating a political party at 1,000 miles an hour, and are sucking in candidates of questionable credentials… be warned. Don’t expect people to vote blindly for the name above the door in May next year, as they might do in a by-election. The all-seeing digital eye will work both for and against UKIP.

Then there is the nature of the beast itself. I want my surgeon to be a slow, serious man or woman, with steady hands and a warm heart. I want my pilot to be tidy, meticulous and whatever the opposite of a corner-cutter is. I want my politician to be slow and deliberate, carefully evaluating the odds and working tirelessly for our well-being.

Making decisions on the fly (or on the sofa) is fun if you are an exciting young startup that is only "learning if it’s failing." It’s less smart if you are running a country. There should be a nobility in government that is quite at odds with the buccaneering world of marketing, although, of course, we want our buccaneers to be telegenic and adept at kissing babies.

All this is bad news for single-issue parties. Voters will judge their political parties in the round next year and make an overall assessment of their role in the body politic. They don’t make that same rounded judgment about the brand of beans they buy or even the car they drive. So when it comes to next year’s election, think like marketers, but vote like citizens.

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