As UKIP advances, modern politics could learn a few lessons from Aldi

Buy one get one free on UKIP MPs. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Even in our always-on, wired, information-fluid age, some countries, some companies, some sectors, persist in inefficient processes because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. While some businesses are moving with the times, others are stuck in their ways. It’s true for some of the biggest supermarkets and even more true in the sphere of politics.

As another potential UKIP win looms, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats need to stop thinking like Tesco and start channelling Aldi.

Politicians seem to have taken the worst aspects of commerce (expenses, back-scratching networks, secrets and lies) and failed to adopt the ones that make corporations efficient and help them boost sales. They are the old guard supermarkets failing to adapt to newcomers in their market.

Innovative, consumer-facing commercial organisations are constantly looking ahead, adapting their marketing and communication strategies to fit the latest findings in behavioural science. They aim to refresh and renew their brands in a continuous development cycle.

A mainstream political party is, by contrast, freighted with ideology and dogma. It runs on consensus but also on coercion and concealment. It directs much of its energy at playing the game in Westminster, rather than producing any tangible benefit for voters.

Focus groups are widely used these days but not with the aim of discovering what voters want. Instead, they seek to investigate how voters can be manipulated to believe that what the juggernaut wants is also what they really want.

The customer is always right

Until very recently, consumers in the politics market have had nowhere to go if they didn’t like what was on offer. All the big brands were in essence the same and there was no real competition beyond them. Little wonder then that brand loyalty has waned, and fewer people are buying.

In one very important way Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have become like Sainsbury’s and Tesco – they have started to take their market for granted in the absence of any meaningful competition. Markets in this state – mature, stable, have become vulnerable to disruptor brands. Newcomers can push into the market with a different model, a different message and a different way of doing business.

Enter Aldi, or indeed UKIP. The newcomer eats into the market by understanding what the customer wants, and promising to deliver it, simply and honestly. Don’t like it, don’t buy it.

The big brands resist at first by pouring scorn on these upstarts, pointing out their inadequacies, their lack of heritage, their dubious authenticity. But in a disrupted market, the old players must adapt or die. They seek to discover what their consumers really want and find ways to deliver – or become irrelevant.

The odd executive might go off script from time to time, as Mark Reckless seems to have done just a day before his by-election, but that can sometimes merely add to the newcomer’s maverick appeal.

The one act of business heresy that the big political brands commit over and over, to their cost, is to snipe at the disruptor. As irritating as the real Aldi might be to Tesco or Sainsbury’s, they know they can’t beat the upstart by badmouthing it. Every mention of the new kid on the block, even when couched as a negative, increases brand awareness. Nigel Farage and Mark Reckless have benefited enormously from free media time in the political rush to denounce them loudest.

Brand values are another increasingly important part of business – commercial enterprises that want to grow live by these for fear they will be caught out for shady practices and punished accordingly by consumers.

In the political marketplace, the disconnect between what is espoused and how the “management” behaves remains so wide as to strain credibility. Take Chris Huhne’s speeding points scandal as just one example among many. Brands and companies no longer operate a transcendent model of “us and them”.

Smart businesses increasingly realise that they are their consumers, and vice-versa. They know that to hold on to customers they need to be seen to share their customers’ values, behaviours and aspirations. We buy because they respond to us, not make us respond to them.

Politicians of all stripes maintain that they care about businesses, particularly the innovative ones that could breathe new life into a flagging economy. Yet they don’t seem to care to stop and think about what qualities make those businesses so impressive, or how they might emulate them.

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