A political party is nothing more than an idea. Ideas that spread are more likely to succeed than not. People often mistakenly think Apple is a technology company, it’s not, it’s a design company that makes technology. Its primary purpose is to create designs that are stylish, easy to use and cool while this manifests itself in its technology products.
For many years the criticism always levelled at Apple was that it was a small player (it had less than 10% of the PC market) and that is stubbornly refused to go into bed with other companies in order to become mass-market. Today it’s ability to be innovative and remarkable means that most of its competitors are always playing catch-up. As soon as a big company launches a mobile phone, laptop or personal music player people compare that product in terms of usability and stylishness to its Apple equivalent. It may never be as big as Microsoft but that’s not the goal.
In much the same way I think that the Lib Dems can learn a lot from how Apple innovates, communicates and brings new products to the market. While Apple might not be the biggest player it does however dominate the debate. Apple users are a tribe who give the brand immense brand loyalty.
If we first look at how Apple’s innovation in product design compared to how most political parties make policy we can see some interesting differences. Companies that design products to be mass marketed develop their products accordingly. These companies round the edges, smooth out the differentiated features, and create products that are bland enough to work for the masses. They push everything – from price to performance – to the centre of the market and in the process make it unremarkable. Political parties set policy in the same way. They gather in ideas from members and interest groups and proceed to bland them to death. The result is that it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between different party manifesto’s. If Apple designed products in the same way then they would have gone out of business long ago. Instead they go out of their way to create products that are remarkable (that people remark about). Sure they alienate 80% of the market but in the process they create something unique that 20% of the market feels really passionate about.
Apple knows how to create buzz around a new product. It is trailed for months, if not years. Rumours are spread, false leads are created. It drives their competitors crazy and their fans ecstatic. How do most political parties communicate. Firstly they put an increadible amount of effort into speaking first with the political hacks and next to no effort in building anticipation amongst voters, members and interest groups. Who cares if the Daily Express writes hate pieces on the Lib Dems, do you think Steve Jobs gives two hoots about establishment papers slagging him off?
Most political parties are still operating a campaign funding system that is more suited to a TV-industrial complex than the 21st Century. If you are launching a policy intended for the masses, you need to spend a hell of a lot of money. Of the 300 major movies launched last year they spent on average $20million in marketing and the vast majority of them flopped.
The problem with this system is that you have to make the marketing work really quickly. If your new policy doesn’t break through the noise, capture peoples attention and allow you to dominate the debate then it’s all over. You’ve wasted your money and the policy is quietly put to sleep.
The front-loading of party political campaign spending so close to the lead up of an election does two things to your policy:
* It means you have a very narrow window to launch a new policy because each one cost so much in political and financial capital. Therefore, you won’t make risky bets, and as a party you’ll be even more likely to introduce boring, me-too policies.
* It doesn’t give you a chance to ride through the idea diffusion curve. It takes a while to reach the early adopters for a new policy and turn them into advocates who can then spread your message to the wider public. Your election-cycle focused budget means that by the time the mass electorate hear about your policy, you’ve burned out the media and cost the party a fortune.
In the Westminster constituency of Perth & North Pertshire the Tory’s spent nearly £100,000 in the run up to election day. Marketing that came too late and disappeared before the candidate could get a toe-hold in the constituency and spread his policy ideas (most of which weren’t very good anyway).
Compare this to the success of just about every move that has suprised Hollywood in recent years. When a Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding happens, it doesn’t get launched with a huge marketing budget. The filmmakers wisely focus on creating a remarkable movie instead.
It seems obvious, yet just about every product aimed at a large audience falls into this trap. Apple plays the long game with their designs. Even today I’m hearing of things they are allegedly working on that won’t hit the shops for another two years but that they are already working on building anticipation for.
The growing-pains that the Lib Dems are experiencing just now are common to most entrepreneurs who have to try and create a strong culture and narrative for their organisation while at the same time managing growth. My argument would be that as a party the Lib Dems shouldn’t shy away from creating truly remarkable policies that excite the electorate and members. Innovation and marketing of our policies shouldn’t just be around election time. We need to accept that small is beautiful and get over the fact that a large number of our policies will not be to everyone’s taste. While I understand that my critics will say that modern politics are decided in the centre ground my counterargument would be that as a party we should be constantly looking to shift expectations as to where that centre ground is.