Political advertising is not for the faint-hearted. This election has been bruising, but no more so than the four other elections we've been involved in, first getting Sir John Key elected in 2008, 2011, 2014, and then gaining a 44.4% vote in 2017 for Sir Bill English.
But if you're into high performance, which BOW is, then we relish campaigns like this. It's cutting-edge problem-solving, and the lessons learned in such a high-stakes, fast-moving environment can be directly translated into our business to assist clients.
August 2022: The National Party brand has taken a severe pummelling with three changes of leaders and being in opposition. Time has moved on and the Nats brand perception, built by our campaign team over 12 years, has eroded. It is seen as out of touch and pale, stale, male – to put it bluntly.
But the mood of the nation has also dramatically changed. In 2017 the country was strong economically so voters could afford to focus on social and climate issues. However, by 2023 the cost of living was biting, the country was divided, crime was rising (up 30%) and voters were thinking, "You know what, I just need to look after myself and my whānau right now."
Research showed that voters were cognisant about Labour's failings, and described the government as one that says the right things, but never followed through. However, they lacked clarity on what Luxon and National's vision was for the country and wanted to hear National's plan to address the issues that matter to them. Jacinda Ardern was still (48%) twice as preferred as Luxon (21%).
This was the environment in which seasoned political campaigner, Jo de Joux, formed a campaign team. It consisted of UK political strategists, Fleetwood Strategy Group, BOW, with 15 years of political experience, teaming up again with political creative strategist, Glenn Jameson and Topham Guerin, social media experts.
National needed to:-
1. Define the battlefield, anchoring the debate around the economy, cost of living and law and order where Nats were perceived as strong.
2. Raise Luxon's profile, particularly swing voters.
3. Connect the dots between a strong economy and how this benefited normal people by improving living standards and public services.
Phase One: Research and strategy
December 1st, 2022: Where most brand campaigns fall down is they fail to align the internal culture and product offering with the external promise before they kick off. You can't do this in politics because it only takes one MP to voice a rogue opinion for the press to jump on it. So the campaign always starts with the frame, the narrative and the strapline.
The 'frame' is about defining the clear choice between the two main parties. In this campaign, it was reckless spending vs sound economic management. (It later evolved to Working v Broken after a string of Labour scandals and defections).
Out of that comes the 'narrative', which consists of a 50-word, 200-word, and 500-word narrative with supporting policies. Voters, like consumers, want a clear, substantiated message. Jo de Joux did a fantastic job of getting agreement across the whole party on this narrative. It then became the mantra for all MPs to memorise and follow.
Phase Two: brand story and strapline
Political parties are prodigious researchers. They conduct focus groups way more regularly than most brands and are more proactive in refining their message to resonate in a fluid, dynamic market.
Phase Two comprised of BOW's Sue and Glenn writing up several consumer-focused brand positions and, with Jo de Joux, doing strap lines.
Out of that came the strapline: Get our country back on track.
The significance of this line was:
- It had an implicit frame implying Labour had taken the country off track
- It wasn't overly aspirational, reflecting research that audiences had no tolerance for over-promises and grandiose idea
- It was in Plain English. This was quite deliberate, erring away from catchy slogans to reflect the language of ordinary Kiwis.
The line overwhelmingly researched well and we saw a huge boost in support when it was launched through town hall 'back on track' meetings.
Phase Three: Pre-seeding the brand position
January 19, 2023: National was climbing in the polls, it was looking pretty good. Then Jacinda Ardern resigned in a well-orchestrated transfer to 'Chippy'. Bugger. Back to square one. Almost immediately all the transgressions of the last six years were swept under the carpet and Labour rocketed in the polls.
In response, Jo de Joux and the campaign team made the unheard-of decision to bring all the policies forward. That's what the public wanted - that's what we gave them. Within a week we launched a 'Family Boost' video giving support for childcare, and the education policy, 'Do the basics brilliantly' - both of which saw an immediate spike in impressions and click-through rates.
After that, no less than 60 policies were rolled out weekly on digital and billboard until October 14. We were literally building the brand from the ground up, through the hard yards of regular policy content through digital platforms.
Phase Four: Mnemonic device
A political campaign has a number of pillars or policy points it needs to span: economy, cost of living, law and order, health, and education. To provide brand continuity we developed a mnemonic device - the 'Slider Effect'.
It allowed us to clearly and simply communicate the campaign framing and graphically illustrate the choice facing voters this election.
We kicked off the campaign with a series of interactive sliders, engaging the voters and our secondary audience, the press. By employing kinaesthetic learning, where the viewer had to make a physical choice, we increased the chances that they would remember the choice they’d already made when they went into the voting booth.
Phase Five: Conceptual directions.
April 2023: The focus groups were grumpy. In the whole 15 years of political advertising, we have never seen anything like it. People were worried, disengaged and disenchanted. They didn't want to see anything negative, but neither did they want anything waffly and visionary. They had enough of 6 years of political spin and promises.
The infamous 'rowing boat' campaign of 2014 was never going to cut it with this lot. Any analogies or gimmicky ads were seen as out of touch – they wanted it to reflect them and their world.
Three different focus groups; three different directions. The market attitudes were in total flux. But we had learned something from the 2017 political campaign where we were divided on the creative approach: Hold your fire.
The final campaign concept threads the needle between introducing Luxon, framing the election, providing a strong economic message and showing how it could benefit Kiwis. Holding our fire meant we were all united in our approach.
Phase Six: Production
We didn’t want our leader stuck behind a boring desk, or shot on a bland white background. By putting him in front of a lively little town, the static frame had movement, with people walking, workers working, and traffic on the move.
However, Luxon's dairy was already packed so we had to film in Auckland. We settled on a place, put in a consent as we always did - and were rejected because a new decree had no political filming on any berm, pathway or public in Auckland. No filming on parliament grounds in Wellington either.
Two weeks in we made the decision to up sticks and film in the South Island which proved to be a very good call as we were able to represent the whole of New Zealand from Garston, Nelson, Christchurch, Wellington and private places in Auckland. And we were in blue territory
Here, our experience in producing content held us in good stead. Instead of using actors, we used real kiwis. All across the country, kiwis stepped forward and agreed to be in the commercial.
Assisting us with this campaign were Jeremy Black (cameraman), Lennon Bright (photographer), Vanya Piacun (client service) and Toybox (post-production) - all brilliant at what they do.
Phase Six: TVC launch
The campaign launched with digital interactive sliders and billboards to set up the frame. Then, on Writ Day, they went full swing into Television, Radio and Print. On week one the Economy 30-seconds, and in week two went to 15-second roll-outs of Cost Of Living and Law and Order.
Underpinning all this was a constant and coordinated TG social media and PR presence, daily, hourly supporting the narrative.
At the campaign launch on Sept 4th, polls jumped from 36% to 40%. Research showed the Economy TVC and COL TVC were doing their job, rebuilding the brand and reminding Kiwis that Nats were the ones whom they could trust with their livelihoods.
The 30 Second TVC ran on digital with a 52% VTR (view-through rate) with Cost Of Living at 41% VTR and Law and Order at a whopping 94% VTR.vThe most popular YouTube videos were Family Boost Childcare video (97k views), Luxon Vision(376k YouTube views across 4 videos), and Campaign Slider videos (Economy, COL, Law& Order - 313k views). In the end, the focus was on the main issues, so healthcare and education were not featured.
"This is a fantastic ad. You should be proud of yourself" - Christopher Luxon
Political commentator Claire Trevett awarded the National Party ‘Best Campaign’ and Derek Chang said it was “superb.”