Sourajit Aiyer

Understanding the fickle consumer holds political lessons

Voters in New Delhi showing their support for the Aam Aadmi Party in January. Party chief Arvind Kejriwal's picture is a favourite, but many carry a broom, the party's election symbol in the Delhi elections.
Voters in New Delhi showing their support for the Aam Aadmi Party in January. Party chief Arvind Kejriwal's picture is a favourite, but many carry a broom, the party's election symbol in the Delhi elections.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Being frank about failure, staying on message and avoiding reverse marketing pay off for the underdog in the Delhi elections

Consumer psychology is an inexplicable aspect of human nature, something corporate managers struggle to deal with. This extends to politics, too, since voters are also consumers. After all, they are buying into the politician's pitch during elections.

Useful aspects of this "consumer" psychology can be seen in Indian politics, specifically in the recent provincial elections in Delhi.

Relative newcomer the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which means Common Man's Party, won a mammoth 95 per cent of seats. This was despite earning flak last year after it prematurely bowed out of power after just 49 days.

It had formed a minority government in the 2013 Delhi legislative assembly elections, where it emerged the second-largest party on its debut bid. But the fledgling AAP government went on to resign in February last year, due to differences with the Congress party - which had been supporting it to make up the majority numbers - over support for an anti-corruption Bill.

The AAP's overwhelming endorsement by voters in Delhi's provincial results also broke the golden run of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had won almost every provincial election in the aftermath of its success in the federal elections last May.

So, from a consumer psychology point of view, why did AAP enjoy such widespread voter affirmation?

  • Deliver on promises

First, consumers remember when you deliver on your promise. Today, in business or politics, there are too many players vying for the consumer's attention. Amid the clamour, consumers do remember if you did what you promised, even if for a short period.

A childhood friend in Delhi, now a criminal lawyer in the High Court, told me that corruption was actually reduced in government departments to some extent during the AAP's 49-day rule last year. For instance: He renewed his driving licence at a tout-free Road Transport office within an hour by himself.

This was unthinkable earlier, owing to the numerous touts and hours one needed to traverse. Delhi-ites felt that the AAP had at least tried to deliver on its anti-corruption promise, even if it was for a short period. Since the AAP had actually "walked the talk", they were eager to give it a second chance.

  • Reverse marketing doesn't work

Second, consumers prefer to know what you will do and what you stand for, rather than why the other is worse than you. How many times have you seen product advertisements showing why other products are inferior, rather than why it is better?

Yet, reverse marketing seems to have limited success today. People now want to know what you will do, rather than hear you put the other down.

Both Congress and BJP's campaigns seemed to harp too much on saying the AAP had "run away" after 49 days. This anti-AAP pitch overshadowed their pitch on how they would handle Delhi's issues, and didn't impress the voters.

  • Customise your message

Third, customisation is key. BJP's pitch during the federal elections on India's development and economic revival was relevant at that stage, given that it was the entire country. But in states where the economic growth agenda is overshadowed by critical micro issues, those addressing the micro issues are deemed more relevant.

Delhi may have a high per capita income among all provinces; however, it ranks dismally on social indicators. It largely comprises working migrants, which has led to women's safety issues; people are more affected by power and water shortages; corruption and the powerful elite getting away with crime have made the middle class and the poor resentful.

On the other hand, the AAP focused on micro issues, and made specific pitches targeting people in the informal sector, the youth, the Bania trading community and minorities.

  • Be consistent in messaging

Fourth, people prefer consistency in the message being delivered. The AAP stuck to its pitch of anti-corruption, utility expenses and safety. But the BJP's economic agenda pitch was overtaken by senseless public comments and unnecessary controversies by right-wing groups. The resultant firefighting distracted from its economic agenda.

  • Below-the-line marketing

Fifth, below-the-line marketing works better than above-the-line marketing in micro markets.

The AAP built its voter connection with on-ground activities like "Jan-Sabha" (people's council) public meetings to discuss constituency-specific issues; the Delhi Dialogue forum to connect with the middle class, youth, traders and workers; Mission Vistaar to beef up its volunteer drive; and Rang de Dilli, which featured a unique assortment of street plays, musical sessions, dance shows and even a motorbike rally.

Such on-ground initiatives brought in an element of passion and emotion in its attempt to reach out to its target consumers.

  • Being frank pays off

Sixth, consumers do understand your first failures when you openly admit them. The AAP earned flak last year when it ended its reign in Delhi after only 49 days. The first thing that it did this year was to publicly apologise and explain the reasons for leaving.

Consumers understand your first failures, especially when they know you do not have a background in that field, and are eager to see the results of your promises cemented further.

Moreover, in today's age, when everyone pins his fault on someone else - the humility of accepting one's own mistakes has value in the eyes of the consumer.

  • Sympathy for the underdog

Seventh, it is human nature to sympathise with the underdog. When the larger opponent launches an all-out attack, it makes the consumer perceive the smaller player as a worthy opponent. Otherwise, why would it merit so much attention from a larger opponent?

The BJP got some federal parliamentarians into the Delhi election campaign, which showed that something was important enough about the AAP to merit that level of attention.

If it were that important a player, then undoubtedly it was worth exploring. It is akin to a larger brand competing heavily against a new brand entrant, which shifts the consumers' attention to the smaller brand to explore whether it is really worth that much importance.

Consumer psychology is a tough-to-solve puzzle, be it in elections or business, and Delhi's elections brought out some interesting findings on this aspect.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer works with a leading capital markets company in Mumbai, India.