The Brexit campaign and the Conservative General Election campaign of 2019 will probably both enter the textbooks as examples of how to run a successful political campaign, based on a clear communication and messaging strategy. This leaves us even more baffled at the UK Governments “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save lives” messaging campaign. This will also enter the textbooks, but as an example of how not to do things.
There are at least 3 elements of the UK Government recent messaging that should never have even made it off the ideas board.
“British Common Sense”
We can see the appeal of trying to invoke a higher purpose and feeling that are unique to the British. The media and politicians have littered their commentary of the current crisis, and almost every crisis since 1945, with comparisons to WW2. For example, contsantly evoking the “Blitz sprit” and “British Resolve”. It makes sense, headlines and soundbites such as the “British sense of fair play” (a thatcher favourite} resonate immediately with the public and create empathy and a sense of national pride. It’s easy to see how putting “British Common Sense” at the heart of the messaging seemed like a good idea, building on the WW2 references and hoping it would disseminate and resonate in the same way, but there is a problem. “British common sense” has no historical resonance. “Common sense” has never won a war, it doesn’t have that emotional pull. More importantly, almost every time the phrase “common sense” is used in every day language it is used in a pejorative sense. Very rarely in every day use do we say “good common sense” and mean it, most commonly we use it in the phrase “just use your common sense”. This is pejorative, far from implying that the subject has common sense, it is a rebuke to the subject for not displaying common sense. At best we might use “common sense” to display irony. Anyone who has ever flicked through the headlines in a Sunday tabloid will know that “common sense” is something that seems all too often lacking. Our immediate and emotional reaction to the phrase “common sense” is ironic, suspicious or negative, it does not generate the emotive sentimentality and pride of phrases like “British pluck”. For most of us, our instinctive reaction to the phrase “common sense” is to immediately consider how often common sense is lacking, because that is how we tend to apply it in every day use. Marketing Lesson 1: never use anything in your client communications and marketing that can have a pejorative interpretation in every day use. The marketing slogan “use your common sense, buy our product” doesn’t work.
“We’re taking baby steps”
Boris Johnson in the commons used the phrase “baby steps”. This phrase was repeated by almost every minister in press and TV interviews. Boris used it again in his article in the Mail on Sunday, and it appeared quoted in many headlines. Anyone who is a parent will know that “baby steps” almost always end in failure. Baby steps are faltering, unsteady, unsure and usually end in parents rushing to prevent a wobbling head hitting the corner of the coffee table. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing, I’m taking baby steps” just does not work in terms of creating an image of someone in control and sure of themselves. Marketing Lesson 2: When you are designing a messaging campaign, imagery is important.
The we get to the government’s punchline. The message the government wants to convey is “stick to the rules”. Those rules have just become more complicated. “Stay alert” and “stick to the rules” are very different messages. It highlights a contradiction in what the government is trying to say. “Stay alert”, use your common sense”, “baby steps” all imply a measure of interpretation, convey the message of trial and error and encourage applying personal judgement to the situation. This contradicts the central aim of the government communication objective which is for people to stick to an increasingly complex set of rules. Anyone who has bought furniture from Ikea will know that the overly prescriptive instructions are frustrating, but when you ignore them and end up with several unused bolts and a wonky set of shelves you realise that they exist for a reason. Every set of instructions starts by saying “please follow the instructions”. “Stick to the rules, Control the Virus, Save Lives” works in a way that “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives” doesn’t. A lot of people think that driving at 80 mph on the motorway makes sense, there’s a reason we don’t tell people “drive as fast as you like as long as you stay alert”, instead government uses the message “speed kills”. I can see how the libertarian instincts of the government mean they do not like the idea of telling people what to do, but the reality is that society is predicated on a set of rules that exist entirely because people don’t use common sense and don’t stay alert. Marketing lesson 3: Say what you mean and don’t obfuscate or confuse your core message.
It’s remarkably easy when brainstorming marketing and communication ideas to take too many steps away from what you set out to achieve, especially when under pressure. Always review your wording in the cold light of day and consider it in reference back to what you really want to achieve, never use terms that can be taken in the pejorative, think about imagery and don’t confuse your audience or infantilise them or leave the meaning open to contradictory interpretations.