17 August 2015 16:24:47 IST

Cracking the market for public service

Drawing up an effective politico-business strategy requires a good understanding of the voter-consumer

Advertising and related elements have already entered the field of politics. Modi’s victory in the last general election has been attributed largely to the slick marketing campaign on social and mainstream media. Can strategic marketing, then, be too far from the world of politics?

Imagine a product whose market is, by definition, oligopolistic in nature and is yet vigorously contested by a handful of suppliers. The nature of the product is such that at any point of time the market is fully supplied with the offerings of just one player. But that can change, with consumers switching loyalty en masse to another offering by a competing supplier. Sounds incredible? Not really.

Public administration

The market for public administration, in which political parties vie with one another for a mandate from the public, is clearly such a market. When parties are positioning themselves to secure this mandate in an election, they are essentially telling the public that they should be given a chance to supply this wholly desirable good called, 'public administration'.

Even when they form an alliance to fight an election, they are doing nothing more than forming cartel as commercial enterprises do (remember the cement cartel?) to win in the market-place. The only difference is that such alliances or tactical seat adjustments may be formal or informal but perfectly legal in electoral democracies. But they are illegal in the world of commerce.

If the analogy of competition in the market-place is perfectly valid for politics in an electoral democracy, it follows logically that corporate strategies that succeed in securing additional customers must be equally applicable in politics, as well. Except that in business, the focus is on customers while in politics, it is on the voters. The label is different but the principle remains the same.

Assembly elections in TN

Armed as we are with this insight, we might as well look at what the Opposition political parties in Tamil Nadu are trying to do to secure a mandate from the public in the Assembly elections that are less than a year away.

Each of them is promising to introduce prohibition if elected to power in the next Assembly polls. Two points can be made. One, the introduction of prohibition, or at least the promise thereof, is a product attribute that they are promising for their brand of 'public administration'. Two, they contend that it is only their brand of 'public administration' which will genuinely contain that attribute (prohibition) compared to the similar promises by competing parties.

It is like those commercials from companies marketing deodorants. Everyone claims that spraying their brand of deodorant is certain make the girls swoon over you. The customer obviously believes the claims of just one while remaining unswayed by those of others.

Gut feel vs data-based approach

Granted that all marketers (read, political parties in Tamil Nadu) think that lacing their product with this attribute (prohibition) will win them total market dominance, the question to be asked is this: How right are they in this approach? An obvious answer is that it is just a gut feel. While business history is full of examples of gut feeling winning handsomely at the market place, more often than not managers have shown a preference for a data-based approach to decision-making.

An important data-point is that in all these years, barring a few notable exceptions, political parties have never thought of this issue as a potential winning gambit ever since State after State started loosening up on their prohibition policy since 1970. There have been so many elections held across all the States since then. Is it reasonable to think that they have got it all wrong? Let us assume that indeed to be the case.

That must necessarily lead them to contemplate the efficacy of another piece of data, namely the percentage of population for whom drinking matters. According to the national household survey data on alcoholic consumption, roughly 10 per cent of the households in TN have at least one person consuming alcohol.

To whom does Prohibition matter?

For political parties hoping to use prohibition as an election plank, the most likely scenario is one where there are two adult members in the household and one of them is a teetotaller, while the other is not. But, as we can see, even this is of little comfort. While the former has reason to support a party promising to impose prohibition the other would have every reason to be ill-disposed towards such a move, resulting in one cancelling the other out, in terms of popular votes.

That leaves only the remaining 90 per cent, for whom prohibition could still matter even though they themselves are not drinkers. That is an eminently reasonable proposition as, after all, such a person might not want his/her child to be exposed, on its way to school, to the spectacle of drunks making a nuisance of themselves every day.

So, prohibition could still matter for this class. That must lead the political parties to consider the next question — whether consumers (voters) would behave in a rational and hard-nosed manner while evaluating the different product offerings or simply be swayed by the rhetoric of campaign noise.

Voters, a smart lot

It would, of course, be nice from the perspective of political parties if voters suspend their rational faculties to be guided principally by sentiment and a certain degree of naivety. But party strategists, like their counterparts in business, do not rely on facile assumptions about consumer behaviour while making their strategic moves. They will have to assume that voters are a smart lot.

The latter, like consumers of deodorants, choose a brand not because the producer claims for his brand an attribute of knocking every passing girl out of her senses, but because it simply has a nice perfume that they happen to like or masks body odour more effectively than competing brands.

A sensible strategist-politician would assume voters, or at least a vast majority of them, to be fair, smart and acting on the dictates of the head rather than the heart. He would know that such a rational voter-consumer would reckon with the following pieces of evidence while evaluating 'prohibition' claims of different brands of service providers (political parties) of public administration.

One, is the well-documented phenomenon of the rapacious behaviour of politicians when dealing with public funds. The knowledge that a liberal alcohol policy simply offers too many avenues for making money that politicians would find difficult to resist.

Not black and white

And, two, the evidence that the nature of public administration as a service is no longer confined to maintaining law and order and sustaining a judicial administration that enforces expeditiously and impartially, contracts that people enter into with one another out of their own free will and choice. It has extended itself in so many directions and at such great depth that funding it with other means is beyond the capacity of the State; nor is extricating itself from these obligations, a realistic option.

So, what can political parties do if the above description is the typical profile of a voter-consumer? They would do well to think of prohibition as a campaign issue, not in monolithic terms that can be reduced to a 'yes' or 'no' binary choice. Instead, they ought to see liquor as something capable of destroying lives as well as being nurtured as a lifestyle choice that can later be milked for garnering revenues to promote public welfare in society at large.

What the contours of such a politico-business strategy could be is a huge consulting opportunity for professionals in this field. So, dear students, put on your thinking hats!

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