12 Mar 2020 19:22 IST

Marketing lessons from the Delhi elections

AAP’s strategy should inspire marketers to focus on product portfolios with renewed vigour

In what was a fervently fought electoral battle, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) retained its one and only stronghold in the country in the recent Delhi Assembly polls. Election battles are increasingly being fought by marketing strategists on behalf of political parties. The 2020 Assembly poll also saw its share of strategists fine-tuning their formulae so that the party they represented stayed a step ahead.

Marketing issues for political parties are quite similar to other consumer brands. They face the same challenges — increasing number of competitors, shifting consumer tastes, heterogeneous consumer behaviour, deafening noise in the market place, narrowing shelf space, ambiguity and lack of clarity on core benefits, and a constant struggle for attention. What distinguishes marketing for political parties is that they all compete for a fixed wallet size. Votes, unlike wallets, are limited to one-per-person.

The tool box

The Delhi elections were marked by the convergence of five major marketing tools. They have all been tried and tested in elections in other parts of the world, but in Delhi, this combination of trends worked wonders. These are crowdsourced or open product innovation, benefit segmentation, focus on the augmented product, leveraged peer-to-peer brand communication and optimum use of technology and owned media channels. Let us examine them.

Product innovation

To start with, Delhi posed unique challenges. AAP, the incumbent party, was challenged during the national elections. The party’s base had eroded across all the seats. It had lost the upper hand to the BJP, which won all the parliamentary seats in Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal set out on a mission to win back people’s hearts long before the elections were declared.

The party conducted 8,000 jan sabhas, or open innovation platforms, where the consumers felt proud that they had a role in designing the product. The party interacted with people and listened to its customers. For the first time, consumers who are voters felt ‘heard’. The jan sabhas also gave an opportunity to the party to conduct a true dipstick and measure the mood of the market.

Benefit segmentation

The AAP decided to build a campaign based on benefit segmentation. The BJP’s campaigns were more along its core Hindutva lines — a tried and tested formula that has worked in its favour. The AAP correctly sensed the people’s mood. Consumers wanted a functional government that was sensitive to their needs and solved problems.

The AAP focused on lowering the cost of living for the middle and lower middle-income groups, improving transparency and ease of doing business for small vendors, from autowalas to shopkeepers, and provided quality healthcare and education. The AAP was successful in reshaping the narrative and focusing the marketing pitch on demonstrable benefits rather than lofty political ideals. Seeing the proof of the pudding attracted more voters.

Technology and communication

The party also leveraged peer-to-peer communication platforms. Debates set the social media on fire. Social media tools such as TikTok were put to creative use. Videos went viral. Competition got to a point where the middle ground, once owned by the modest agenda of the Congress party, eventually disappeared into a thin line between the AAP and the BJP. The decisive votes went in favour of the ruling dispensation, which has now won its third election in a row — a significant feat for a party with no political ideology.

Raining freebies

Delhi elections are quite different from other States. The consumer’s needs and sentiments are quite divergent due to the heterogeneous cultural mix. Though it has the second highest GDP per capita in India, the income is spread unevenly among its 11 million people. While the city is the centre of power in India, residents in Delhi do not have a large say in the way the city is managed.

Even the State government has a very limited role to play. A large part of the population lives in ‘unauthorised’ colonies without access to proper amenities. The residents therefore wanted a government that could walk the talk and deliver on its promises, even though their government worked on a very limited mandate on a very narrow set of issues. Free power, free water and free bus rides were on offer to those at the bottom of the pyramid. These freebies tilted the balance in favour of the incumbent.

Regional vs national brand fight

BJP is a national brand. It has a much larger market share across the country. It came to the battle from a position of power. However, it lacked a credible business model. Its benefits were not tangible. The AAP set the market environment and dominated the competition with its performance track record, while the BJP floundered at this play.

The Congress pitched for its regular minority votes plus progressive majority formula, but lost its footing in the changed circumstances. Both the BJP and the Congress lacked a clear face. They leased their brand personalities from the national stable. In regional elections, people prefer to vote for regional faces on the basis of regional issues. A parallel is the case of regional soft drinks coming back to grab market share from national majors in South India.

A happy customer

The Delhi Assembly elections have become a model for other States. Political parties have to focus on creating a more ‘functional product’ rather than merely peddling lofty political ideals. These ‘functional promises’ should be translated into verifiable and ‘tangible benefits’. A ‘happy customer’ is the most important final product you can ever produce. Everything else the enterprise does should only be a channel to create this final product. The Delhi polls should inspire both service marketers and political parties to focus on their product portfolios with renewed vigour.

(The writer is Professor of Marketing, and Dean-Continuing Education and Placements, MDI Gurgaon. Views are personal.)