by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) The level of loyalty and emotional investment that political parties in this country get out of their supporters is staggering, especially when you consider that they are only allowed big ‘advertising’ campaigns once every five years. If private sector brands could illicit such customer loyalty, their marketing directors would retire at 40 — rich, happy and fulfilled.

So how do they do it? How do our political brands get such fervent support, even in the absence of tangible products and services and, in some cases, poor or skewed records of delivery?

Alistair MackayNumber of reasons

There are a number of reasons for it and some, such as our oppressive past and a lingering sense that politics is a zero-sum game, are awful and not particularly helpful for marketers.

But I believe that there are two things political parties do that other brands can learn from, things that connect with our emotions and make us willing to forgive shortcomings, rather than jump ship:

  1. Political parties inspire us through storytelling, and
  2. They show that they are on our side.


Storytelling, as a discipline, has been getting a lot of attention recently but there are still very few brands that get it right. It requires the storyteller to give up talking about product features unless they support or add to the narrative. Even more difficult for brands, storytelling requires conflict.

Good stories are not just a sequence of happy marketing jingles: they have obstacles, and heroes who triumph over them.

Political parties weave grand, elaborate stories that capture our imaginations and give a sense of history and importance to our lives. Whether it’s a national democratic revolution, a fight for economic freedom, or a battle to restore the dreams of 1994, political brands are stories about overcoming injustice and oppression.

As a citizen and voter, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in.

The hero is you

But political parties do more than that — they cast the hero in their stories as you.

The fight is to improve your life; the struggles they talk about are the struggles you face every day. And that is where the real marketing magic lies.

It is a simple principle, but so often forgotten by marketers — be on your customers’ side. Have your customers’ interests at heart.

What customer-focused means

Being customer-focused is such an over-used phrase that marketers don’t stop to think about what it means.

  • It means that your customers will not trust you and will not be loyal to you unless they truly believe you are trying to make their lives better, not sell them things. So make their lives better.
  • It means you need to really understand what is important to your customers. You need to invest time, energy and resources into understanding their needs, motivations, frustrations, life contexts, passions and struggles. It requires insight well beyond how they interact with your category.
  • It means demonstrating that your customers’ well-being is important to your business.


I have recently had an infuriating and profoundly brand-damaging experience with an airline’s customer-service centre, in which I had to pay twice for the same flight because of a hidden clause in its terms and conditions.

Instead of any attempts to understand my predicament, I was simply met with a speech about how I should have behaved differently. It was the perfect demonstration of how most brands fail to understand this basic of brand-building.

‘Putting customers first’ means nothing if you just intend it as a line for your ad. Customers will see right through that. It only means something when you actually care about their interests, and maybe even consider those ahead of your terms and conditions.

Powerful forces

Political brands are powerful forces to be reckoned with. They do a much better job at earning and holding loyalty than most other brands, largely because we love the stories they tell, because they understand our worries and frustrations and, most importantly, because we believe they are fighting in our corner for us.

Alistair Mackay (@almackay) is marketing manager and head of content at Yellowwood, (@askYellowwood) a leading marketing strategy and brand development consultancy. He has experience both as a brand strategist and as the digital media manager for the Democratic Alliance, and believes that innovative, insightful and generous marketing is both good for business and social change in South Africa. He will contribute the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.

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