Spencer Livermore, Blue Rubicon: Winning the corporate campaign

The tools of political strategy can help businesses solve their reputational challenges, says Spencer Livermore, director of strategy and planning at Blue Rubicon.

Spencer Livermore, Blue Rubicon: Winning the corporate campaign

In a world in which challenges to reputation emerge faster and are more unpredictable than ever, businesses often face an overwhelming pressure to 'just do something' - to move straight to the execution phase of a campaign. Our advice is to resist this temptation. In order to shape sentiment rather than continually chase it, corporate campaigns must be underpinned by investing more time in strategy, not less, so that when the execution phase comes, it delivers maximum value for the comms budget.

At Blue Rubicon, we believe that a new strategic approach is needed to help our clients respond to this pressure. Our approach fuses the strengths of communications strategy - drawn from the worlds of advertising and PR - with the approaches of political strategy, and combines them in a single offer.

While the strengths of communications strategy might be well known, why does the addition of political strategy add so much value when it comes to helping clients respond to these pressures?

The answer is that politics faces the same, if not greater, pressures for immediate action, contending with the demand for daily approval. Successful political strategists win the 'permanent' campaign by underpinning all action with a clear strategy, executed in a disciplined way. This approach to strategy formation and execution is increasingly seen as relevant to businesses facing their own strategic challenges.

Harsh environment

The political strategy approach has been forged in the harshest of environments: political communicators have long had to contend with an exceptional combination of extreme factors.

First, nowhere is the consumer less willing to listen than in politics. Bombarded by seemingly undifferentiated messages they often find hard to relate to, political consumers are more cynical, sceptical and distrusting than those in any other sector.

Second, the media environment is more routinely brutal in politics than in any other sector. Political brands are evaluated every day, have to prove themselves every day, and are under attack every day from a hostile media, often with its own agenda.

Third, politics is uniquely focused on beating the competition. Your reputation is only ever relative to that of your opponents, creating a competitive environment unparalleled in its ferocity.

Finally, the win-or-lose, winner-takes-all nature of elections raises the stakes. This single moment of definitive judgement shortens the timeframe and sharpens the imperative to influence attitudes and behaviour.

To survive in this harsh environment, successful political strategists have perfected a process that can quickly deliver extraordinary strategic clarity and discipline - and which we are using to do the same for businesses as they seek to win their permanent corporate campaigns.

So what are the steps in this political strategy process?

It begins by ensuring strategy is genuinely driven by audience insight. Starting with a clear focus on who the target audience is, we drill down until we have a deep understanding of our target audience's behaviour and what might change it. This helps ensure that a continual line of sight to the ultimate audience is maintained at all times during the campaign.

Strategic positioning

Once the target audience is identified and understood, we work towards developing the strategic 'positioning', whether for the organisation, product or brand. The value of positioning is that it defines the territory from which, in a competitive environment, you can win the argument. Rather than traditional 'issues management' - where you fight on your opponents' territory and allow them to define the terms of the debate - positioning identifies the ground from which you can win, meaning your existing brand or organisational attributes can become assets rather than liabilities.

With the strategic positioning agreed, we now adopt the same disciplined adherence to execution that the best political campaigns take for granted. To do this, strategy must be coherently articulated in the form of a narrative that drives and unites all communications. This matters because, in essence, a campaign is a battle for dominance between two competing narratives - every day dominated by your narrative, you win; every day spent on your opponents' narrative, you lose.

Finally, we implement this narrative using the critical fourth step: message discipline, the application of a consistent message across all channels, with a clear understanding of which words to use and which to avoid, transforming its impact.

So, with reputations made and broken faster than ever before, we live in an era of the permanent corporate campaign. The challenges faced in business and politics are now so alike that the solutions must be too.

Applying the tools of political strategy

Successful political strategists have perfected a process that can quickly deliver clarity and discipline. Here are three examples from the toolkit we use with clients:

  • Own the word. In order to answer the most fundamental strategic question - where to position oneself - we work with our clients to distil the essence of their brand into a single word. This is the word they will seek to own, defining the territory from which they will fight in a competitive environment. By owning a single word, provided it is both credible for the organisations and differentiating from their competitors, we achieve clarity on future direction.
  • War gaming. Every organisation or brand lives in a competitive environment. The War Gaming tool forces you to think like your competitors, identifying positions already owned by them. This stress-tests your desired positioning against that of your opponents, exposing weaknesses that might not have been identified.
  • Words to use, words to avoid. We now have a positioning, competitively tested. Next, we must articulate it in a way that works for our target audience - critical because the way consumers talk about an issue will be very different from the way an organisation talks about it. If narrative is the story we want to tell, messaging is the specific words we use to tell it. To determine the words to use and the words to avoid, we design the right language for the specific audience, a compelling sequence for messaging and a hierarchy to guide frequency of use.
  • Spencer Livermore is director of strategy and planning at Blue Rubicon


Political strategy

  1. Clarity of target audience
  2. Joined-up, end-to-end view of campaign strategy where central idea drives all other activities
  3. Constant focus on the competition
  4. Storytelling through narrative as expression of strategy
  5. Disciplined application of consistent message across all channels
  6. Five-year electoral cycle that must still deliver daily approval

Communications strategy

  1. Clarity of target audience
  2. Central idea complements and amplifies all other initiatives
  3. Relentless focus on uncovering brand strengths
  4. Simplicity of creative idea as expression of strategy
  5. Novel, engaging application of creative idea across all channels
  6. Long-term brand strategy that must deliver business results every day.

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