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Comment: Politicians could learn communication skills from retailers says Nigel Collett of RPA:Group

Brands flourish and proliferate on the high street, where choice increases daily. However, we seem to be faced with dwindling options in politics, where the major political parties are running smug and change-resistant monopolies. Politics seems to have arrived at the point that banking reached a few years ago before the appearance of challenger brands like Metro and Virgin. 

In sharp contrast to politics, the fast-paced retail industry welcomes the competition that makes it focus on brand building and customer delivery. The old adage that customers vote with their feet is never far from mind, and every retailer knows their success depends on securing a ‘vote’ for their brand 365 days a year. 

If one compares the general management style of our politicians to the world of retail there are some interesting comparisons to be made. First of all, retailers are campaigning all the time. Their media and marketing machines, design, research and development departments and customer insight experts never stand down or drop their guard. Above all, they know that you are only as good as your last customer interaction. 

By comparison, political parties market themselves every few years at local or general elections. Polls happen all the time of course, but they reach their apogee over a few weeks of electioneering. One could argue that the typical voter, who apparently spends just four minutes a week thinking about politics, is most receptive at those moments when they will either ‘buy’ one political brand or another. 

As a consequence politicians know their voters far less than retailers know their customers. The fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party had no faith in Jeremy Corbyn while thousands of party members thought he was the next messiah sums it all up. Last week’s election was a sobering moment for many in the world of politics as gross misjudgement ruled the day.  

As retail designers we make sure that customer insight lies at the bedrock of a retail brand's existence.  If you can’t deliver to consumers the products they want, in an environment where they want to shop, with a great customer experience, then you will fail.

Brands have no mandate that will last them until the next election. Their values, their manifesto if you like, are based on an understanding of the desires and needs of customers. I cannot think of an example in the retail industry where a CEO (Theresa May) and two managing directors (personal advisors) have conducted a strategy that ignores the company’s entire management team (the cabinet) and ultimately the company’s customer base (the electorate). 

Somebody pointed out that May had been too ‘presidential’ in her campaign and insufficiently ‘collegiate’. As all those who work in retail know, a ‘collegiate’ management style - working as a team, and putting the customer at the heart of all you do - is the template for success. I would also like to add the need for honesty and transparency. Both abound in retail but in politics they are sorely lacking.  

Over the past few weeks we have seen social media, particularly Facebook, used by the Conservatives and Labour in very different ways. 

The Tories ran a campaign where hundreds and possibly thousands of different messages could be delivered at a granular level, targeting people down to their postal code. Campaign content amounted to little more than blunt character assassination. On the other hand, Labour engaged with the battle weary electorate by using positive imagery and messaging.

Of course, the retail industry is no stranger to social media and spends millions on sophisticated personal profiling and targeting, but I cannot imagine a situation where one leading brand would run an ad telling you how bad a competitor’s products are. Customers see social media as personal (in a good way), informative and collaborative. There is no place for ‘flaming’ in the online environment where mudslinging goes against the cultural grain - and here the Tories got it badly wrong.  

It would be so nice to see more viable options in British politics, something like the new En Marche party in France. Sadly, in the UK we have almost arrived at a Hobson’s Choice and something is needed to sharpen and energise Westminster. Perhaps taking a closer look at the retail sector and how it engages with customers might improve the thinking of parties and what they deliver to all of us? 

Nigel Collett is CEO of RPA:Group