OPINION: MARKETING SOCIETY - Spin won't work for products or political parties

As a veteran of only three years as an MP for Putney, I am still often asked what I did before I entered the House of Commons. 'A businessman,' I answer. 'Ah, an accountant,' they say. No, a marketer. So how did a I end up becoming an MP?

As a veteran of only three years as an MP for Putney, I am still often asked what I did before I entered the House of Commons. 'A businessman,' I answer. 'Ah, an accountant,' they say. No, a marketer. So how did a I end up becoming an MP?

When I left university it was to join Unilever and a long defunct produce called Treetop - a squash drink launched by Van den Bergh in 1964. But I soon found myself in Kenya marketing over-the-counter goods and was subsequently merchandise-controlling non-foods in Kingsway Stores in Nigeria. The Biafran War was not to my liking, so I moved back to the UK, and, with Ralph Halpern, I set up Top Shop in 1969.

Top Shop was a marketing man's dream: a retail product that year by year altered chameleon-like in its decor and day by day changed the clothes on sale, to mirror and influence its buying public. We went through five complete changes of decor in the 70s. Top Man, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Principles, Champion Sport and Debenhams followed, all of them marketing-led.

In 1991 I became leader of Merton Council. After reformulating the brand - sorry, improving the services of the council with help from fellow councillors and staff - I launched Merton Moving Ahead, with a symbolic water wheel relating to the history of the River Wandle and the suffragette movement. The colours were green and purple.

So onto 1997 and the landslide election. Was New Labour all marketing hype? And more to the point, has the government delivered on the core values of the 'brand'? There was far too much spinning of achievements in the first two years of the government. And both the spinners and those they spin to have woken up to this. Over-selling a brand is ridiculous: the buying public is not stupid. I welcome the recent changes in presentation that mean we are now telling it as it is.

The fuel crisis of September clearly shows the need to lead rather than follow opinion. In marketing terms, we did not make the case for high fuel prices to wean us off fossil fuels because of global warming. New Labour as a brand must ensure it has sufficient listening power to advertise its policies in a way that secures support upfront.

So will the coming election be marketing-driven? The advertising agencies are in place, the billboards tentatively booked. Since Saatchi & Saatchi sold New Conservatism under Thatcher in 1979, all elections have been driven by marketing.

But - and it is a big but - political parties and their manifestos are not the same as FMCG products. They are about the public good. The private sector needs to be harnessed in partnership. But clearly the good of the many, not the few must hold sway and the good of the shareholders does not come before that of the electorate. The National Health Service is a clear example of that, and woe betide any politician who would seek to privatise it.

Someone told me, however, that a survey in the US showed electors were more committed to their brand of cat litter than to President Clinton, for whom they had just voted. What does that say about brand marketing effectiveness - or about why people vote?

Tony Colman is MP for Putney and a member of The Marketing Society.


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