Some hard core stuff

What are political parties actually selling or What does Trump know and SDP doesn’t?


When you try to picture creatives in an advertising agency, you probably imagine them as something between Hunter S. Thompson and Jackson Pollock, guys rolling joints while frantically typing up scripts for your favourite shampoo. And right you are - that is exactly what a regular day at Señor looks like. But besides coming up with creative concepts and communication, there is an additional part of the process that precedes these two and that, in my opinion, is the most interesting.

One of the most important things in our business is to understand the motivation for a particular product or service. Why do people buy the products they buy i.e. what specific need is the customer really satisfying by purchasing that product? If you can figure that out, there’s a good chance your communication and campaign will be efficient.

Way back in 1967, Philip Kotler (still alive and kicking, by the way) developed a model that differentiates three ‘levels’ of a product - the core product, the actual product and the augmented product. While the actual product represents the real, physical product (e.g. a car), the core product represents the main benefit - the fundamental need or want that the consumer is looking to satisfy, the true reason of his or her purchase (getting from point A to point B). Women (and men in some cases) don’t buy lipstick, they buy attractiveness. People don’t buy books because of the book itself, but because of the information or entertainment they provide. Watches are not bought because they tell time (not anymore, at least) but because they serve as personal ornaments. You don’t buy a fridge magnet in Marrakech for its aesthetic value, but because you want to tell everyone where you’ve spent your vacation. I could go on, but you get the point.

But can we look at political parties in a similar way? Can we think of them as institutions that offer products - products that have a market (the voters) and for which there is demand (visible from the polls and electoral results)? The actual product of a political party is its program - a set of policies it plans to pursue and enact once in power. But to me, as I believe to voters, this seems less interesting. In order to understand the success of a particular party or politician, I think we have to understand their core product - what is the essence of what they are selling? Let’s start with domestic (Croatian) products.

HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union)

HDZ sells national identity. Identity is extremely important to people because it provides meaning - it gives people a place in the world, it provides a social context and a sense of belonging. Most importantly, it gives an answer to the question: who are we? Since this is a product that is in high demand over the past 30 years (especially in the Balkans), it comes as little surprise that HDZ is by far the most successful political party in Croatia. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the newly created state was in dire need of ethnic, but also ‘political’ Croats - making national identity a sought after product. As the main party, HDZ entrusted itself with the task of shaping the national identity, promoting it’s main components: a set of values, a selective interpretation of history, carefully selected national myths, glorification of certain memories and purposeful omittance of other ones.

It is a common mistake to think that HDZ’s core product is conservatism - fiscal and social (a trait of traditional right-wing parties in Western Europe). This has proven not to be the case, since HDZ governments are usually more ‘social’ than the SDP (Croatian Social Democrats) ones - allocating more resources for social transfers and are notoriously more inclined towards public sector employment. Things get a little more complicated when it comes to human rights issues, but we are currently witnessing that not even the ratification of the Istanbul Convention has significantly diminished HDZ’s support. This seeming hypocrisy has never been a problem for HDZ, nor has the serious amount of corruption that has plagued the party from the beginning because they do not manifest fundamental divergence from the core product. Corruption, if it seeks to accomplish the preferential treatment of members of the dominant social group, is actually in line with their core product.

SDP (Social Democratic Party)

SDP’s core product is a ‘normal’ Western society. For SDP, this normal society has always meant liberal values, prosperity and a well regulated state and has traditionally meant advocating two things: anti-nationalism and well-regulated capitalism (playing by the rules). Both of these things have historically pitted them against HDZ. Take notice that their core product is not, and has never been, economic redistribution (a classic product of traditional social democratic parties). That’s why it’s no coincidence that the main buyers of SDP’s product are most often the members of the liberal urban class who are not necessarily advocates of economic redistribution but are proponents of a well regulated state. This is also why SDP has managed to maintain its voter base throughout the years even when the policies it was implementing where not something you would attribute to the Left.

Currently, SDP has two major problems, and it may come as a surprise that neither one of them is Davor Bernardić (current president of the Social Democratic Party). The first problem is that among SDP members there is a significant fraction that does not agree with the current core product and thinks that SDP, like other left parties, should be a proponent of more radical economic redistribution. Since they cannot agree about the product - they cannot define the potential target market, nor the message that would appeal to that group. This confusion is the main reason why SDP will lose the upcoming election(s).

The second problem is that certain party leaders (Milanović, Josipović) compromised on the party’s commitment to anti-nationalism - hoping that by doing so they would cater to the right-leaning voter base. This was a clear departure from one of the staples of their core product. At that moment, from the perspective of the SDP voter, one of the main reasons for voting for that party was eliminated, the party lost sizeable support and the 2016 elections.

Živi zid (Human Shield)

The core product of Živi zid is revolt towards the current social and political system - towards the outcomes of capitalism, representative democracy and, first and foremost, towards institutions (the central bank, EU, NATO, corporations). To their voters they do not represent a well-formulated alternative, but a critique. Živi zid does not offer (viable) solutions, rather they are a party committed to revealing the decay of the current system. In fact, providing any specific, concrete solutions would be counterproductive for their polling numbers, as would being in government.

In Croatia, as in Europe and the US, there is growing distrust in institutions (my assumption is that the main cause is the growing inequality that amplifies the overall sense that institutions do not care about the public interest), driving the demand for Živi zid’s product.

And while we’re on the subject of populist resentment, let’s take a look at the Populist in Chief.

The Republicans

What the Republicans are selling is the status quo. Their core product is the preservation of the current position of the dominant social group. This group is roughly made up by whites - primarily WASPs, but over time this group has broadened to include other ethnic groups like the Irish, Italians, the Poles, etc.

Their strategy for achieving that goal has historically been a combination of two things - social conservatism and fiscal conservatism (small government). By implementing those two instruments the chance of any structural and societal change diminishes, since both act as a tool for perpetuating the existing hierarchy - in the economy, in society and in the family. This is why it’s easy to understand the Republican eternal opposition to government intervention - it’s not that they have a problem with intervention as such, it is the redistribution potential that they oppose and the redistribution of power.

What Trump understood was that he could easily forgo advocating the two levers that the Republicans traditionally used to maintain the existing social hierarchy if he stayed a true adherent of the core product. Trump showed that the voters didn’t especially care about his lack of conservative values (3 wives, 2 divorces), nor his departures from the laissez-faire principles when it comes to the economy (promoting tariffs). On the contrary, the unequivocal promise to his base that he will take America back to a time when the dominant social group enjoyed a more privileged status is exactly the essence of the Republicans’ core product and was greeted with approval and support. This is the reason why he - to the surprise of many - won the election and why his rating is still rather stable.

“So much of our understanding of who we are, comes from this nostalgic view we have of our past. These stories, these myths we tell each other. (…) The idea that we want to return to a time when we knew our place. When things made sense, fictional or not.” - Benedict Cumberbatch, Brexit: The Uncivil War

The Democrats

Just like in the case of SDP, the Democrats’ core product isn’t economic redistribution i.e. economic egalitarianism, but meritocracy. Equality of opportunity not equality of outcome. They promote and support policies whose goal is to provide opportunities for everyone, regardless of race, ethnic background, origin, gender or sexual orientation. The Democrats are selling the possibility of social mobility, but - and this is an important ‘but’ - by means of individual accomplishments, not collective ones.

It’s therefore understandable why Democrats (from Clinton onwards) have not implemented a more radical progressive tax policy and why inequality (one of the highest in the industrialized countries) is not their political priority. Also, it’s much easier to understand why the Democrats are (in principle) advocates of immigration - because the newcomers are the expected consumers of their core product. It’s also the reason why Trump and the Republicans are such vocal opponents of it.

Three conclusions

First: if you want to understand why customers buy your product, you should start by detecting the core product. If Trump showed anything, it was that an unambiguous, honest (yes, honest) and unwavering communication of the core product was more important than polished CVs, gaffes and political experience - all those things thought to be vital for a successful campaign and good election results.

As much as people criticized Trump for lying, he was in fact honest about the thing he was selling. He peeled away the unnecessary layers of dog-whistle politics and simplified the true message that has been at the core of the Republican party. And while the media, the Democrats and even the Republicans were outraged by the things that were (not very eloquently) coming out of his mouth - he showed that it had little effect on the meaning of what he represented to the voters. On the contrary.

Second: it’s possible that in different life stages a person prefers and chooses different products. It’s rather understandable why for example a (legal) immigrant can at first vote for the Democrats and 40 years later vote Republican or even Trump. It’s not because of some ideological one-eighty, but more likely because his/hers socio-economic conditions have changed and that - and this is more important - he/she has started thinking of himself/herself as the member of the dominant social group.

Third: the same phenomenons will be perceived differently in different political parties depending on what those parties represent to their voters. For example, corruption will be devastating and disastrous for SDP, but not so much for HDZ. The reason is that any appearance of corruption is in stark contrast to SDP’s core product, but not detrimental to HDZ’s core product. HDZ has historically known how to cash-in this fact. Literally.

. . .

In 1967 Philip Kotler surely did not think about Trump or SDP, but his model may help us understand why next year Živi zid will advocate the abolition of the police, why Trump is building a wall on the US-Mexico border, why SDP can oppose a real estate tax without losing face and why HDZ is just dying to spend even more money on the veterans, the Church and on monuments of Franjo Tuđman.

This interview was originally published by tportal.