Week in Review

National doesn’t need a John Key 2.0

New National leader Todd Muller's message sounds like the party's old brand under John Key and Bill English. To solve its problems, the party will need to deliver a broad new campaign message that takes post-Covid needs into account.

National has changed the messenger, but it also needs to change the message: It’s the political product that’s the problem, not just how it is sold. Political marketing is not just about selling the product - but offering the right product in the first place. If you get the product right, it sells itself. Conversely even the best advertisers can't sell a bad product. 

So, just changing the messenger won't solve National's problems unless it also changes the message. 

After his election, Todd Muller said his focus was the economy, saving jobs and getting the economy to grow again. Fair enough, except this sounds just like the National Party pre-2017 under John Key and Bill English, the old brand that only focused on growing the economy and not other issues like housing. 2020 has brought us challenges of a new kind, which although economic, require fresh new thinking. Not Key 2.0.

There were though, signs of potential in what he had to say. Muller qualified the emphasis on economy by saying he was driven by community, and talked of ‘your butcher’, ‘your farms’, ‘your shops’, ‘your families’ and ‘your economy.’ He also said ‘I'm about what's best for you and your family, not what's wrong with the Government’ and that he wasn’t ‘interested in opposition for opposition's sake’. If he sticks to this he will avoid a lot of the mistakes Simon Bridges made.

But equally during the live stand up in front of the media, his answer to the question 'who is Todd Muller?' was 'ask my wife'. This isn’t a good enough answer, so he needs to work on this quickly. National needs to come up with a better product design to get voter support rather than manufactured spousal product claims. To do this there has to be strategic thinking that responds to an understanding of voter concerns, and leads to a new vision for New Zealand with clear goals for getting Kiwis through the challenges ahead.

So, given the popularity of the Prime Minister currently, and the overall approach of the Government both in relation to health and the economy, what options are National likely to be considering in terms an election campaign? 

An option before Covid-19 was to use highly negative insights marketing that plays on people’s fears; it’s an approach used by Australian advisors Crosby-Textor in NZ, Australia and UK elections and that can be even more effective now with individualised, directly delivered adverts sent to people’s mobiles on social media. 

Post Covid-19 this approach is even more likely, as their market researchers will be looking for potential clinks in Ardern’s armour. One potential weakness is the anger and frustration people feel at their businesses losing money or even going under during lockdown, and that whole industries such as tourism and travel are threatened with collapse, with even professionals such as pilots losing their job with no clear route back to what was a high-flying career.

It’s a nasty form of marketing, but if we continue to keep the virus at bay, frustrated voters will say Ardern locked us down for too long and ruined the economy. Despite Labour claiming its May Budget was about jobs, jobs jobs, National will argue things are bad, bad, bad, and that they are the party of business and the hard worker, and are best to take over and sort everything out. Indeed, Muller has already compared the current situation to that facing the country after the end of World War II. Simplistic fear-based messages could hit home to those voters in the worst of positions. 

National will be reminding voters it is the party that got us through the GFC, and can now get us through Covid-19 and back to normal. This might work to some extent, particularly now Bridges is no longer in place undermining the National Party’s overall brand competence on economic and government management. But the challenge to the ‘business as usual’ argument is the strong sense that we can never get back to normal. We might have seen the back of the virus, but the rest of the world hasn’t, and New Zealand doesn’t sit in isolation from everyone else – we are very globally connected and what happens elsewhere still affects us.

Instead, what it should do is focus on proposing alternative, exciting and interesting proposals that help us adapt and innovate and thrive through the challenges ahead. It should show respect and support for the Government’s handling of the health crisis to convey they are still aware of what it is like to run government and make difficult decisions, and then focus only on new solutions and opportunities. They need to show their entrepreneurial side, not business as normal side.

Moreover, while economic issues are important because they determine people’s quality of life, there are wider issues to be fought in this election campaign. The economy is really about people. This is something National forgot in 2017, which is why it lost public support. So although people will be concerned about unemployment, lost careers, and their future plans and dreams, a health crisis also makes us think about more immediate day-to-day life and what really matters. The public will be asking their future government to think differently – some are wanting to find different ways of making money, others think we need to adapt to the new normal that will emerge, while others may want us to forge our own path in the new situation domestically and globally. 

National will need to deliver a broad campaign message that takes these post-Covid needs into account, rather than using a change of leadership to simply repeat messages of the past.

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