Opinion

6 ways the Conservatives could shake things up to widen their political appeal

If ever there was a time the Conservatives should avoid doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome, this would be it, writes Éric Blais.

Federal Conservative Party faces a 'strategic inflection point' as its leadership race kicks off

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer is applauded by caucus members as he announces he will step down as leader of the federal Conservatives on Dec. 12, 2019, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. The party leadership race opened officially on Jan. 13. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Éric Blais, president of Headspace Marketing in Toronto. He has helped build brands for more than 35 years and is a frequent commentator on political marketing, most recently on CBC's Power & Politics. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Business leaders dread them.

They are set off by almost anything — competition, new regulations, changes in technology — and they force a company to adapt or fall by the wayside. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and a brilliant strategist, called them "strategic inflection points" and argued that, if managed right, these decisive moments can be an opportunity to win and emerge stronger than ever.

The Conservative Party of Canada is now facing its own strategic inflection point.

Political parties are complex creatures, and political brands are equally complex to build and manage. Therefore, battle-tested political strategists tend to rely on what they view as proven strategies and tactics.

However, the Conservatives lost an election many thought they should have won, and they're now in search of a new leader. If ever there was a time the party should avoid doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome, this would be it.

And in the course of trying something different, those political strategists could benefit from some marketing advice.

WATCH | Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos speaks to Éric Blais and ​​​​Dennis Matthews, a conservative strategist and vice-president at Enterprise Canada, about a potential fresh strategy for the Conservatives:

Marketing experts Dennis Matthews and Éric Blais discuss the Conservative brand and if it needs a refresh. 9:30

Leadership race

The leadership race officially started this week. Don't just pick a leader.

Pick a spokesperson with impeccable communications skills who is fluent in Canada's two official languages. Someone with strong name recognition and the gravitas to be the next prime minister. There isn't time for a Joe Clark to go from obscurity — Joe Who? — to prime minister.

Even more importantly, don't let the leadership race influence the party policies that will be required to win over Liberal voters. Get those right, and do it now.

If you don't, you risk hiring the wrong spokesperson (a blue, red or pink Tory) who will come across as inauthentic during the next election.

The federal Conservative Party will choose its new leader on June 27 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Think outside your box

Listen to new voices. There's a reason most organizations hire outside consultants for objective, fact-based advice: they usually tell it like it is.

The party brand is seen as "closed," according to a recent survey by Abacus Data. It's time to open it up to new thinking.

The Conservative base of core supporters is solid, but not large enough in Ontario and Quebec to win the next election. So spend less time preaching to the converted who won't have anywhere to go even if they don't like some of the more progressive policies required to attract Liberal voters.

Andy Grove was also known for his ability to "look forward and reason back." Take a page from his playbook and adapt the Conservative brand's promise to a changing Canada, while remaining true to the principles of conservatism.

A survey conducted by Abacus Data offers insight into how voters view the Conservative Party and its main competitor, the Liberal Party of Canada. David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, and Dennis Matthews, a conservative strategist, discuss what the results mean for the future of Canadian politics. 11:34

Spread some of that 'hopey changey' stuff

The next election will be about shaking loose Liberal supporters who are restless for something new. Please, don't use a slogan like "Change you can trust."

Find something inspirational about the kind of change you'll bring to people's lives. Start a movement based on shared hope. Invite Canadians to vote for you because you're the better option, not because you're the one they distrust or dislike the least.

And don't call them taxpayers.

Pick a slogan and stick to it. Why wait until an election is called to express simply and concisely what you're about? Just do it.

Permanent campaigning is a reality we can't escape. You might as well begin communicating what the party stands for even before the leader is elected in June. It will have the added benefit of making party members understand the Conservative strategy before choosing the right spokesperson.

And stop being so negative.

Many advertisers know they're wasting half their budget, they just don't know which half. There's a good chance the Conservatives wasted the large portion of their budget that was spent on relentless attack ads.

Justin Trudeau smiles from the back of a milk carton in a 2016 Conservative Party attack ad campaign on social media. (Conservative Party of Canada/Twitter)

That kind of ad worked against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, but voters appear to have accepted that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised and still re-elected him.

You've made your point. Run contrast ads during the next campaign but, in the meantime, focus your advertising on communicating your party's rebranding and on introducing the team, not just the new leader.

Adopt a distinct Quebec strategy

Everyone marvels at the possibility of micro-targeting to reach specific groups of voters with a specific, tailored message. It's absolutely necessary as long as you have reliable data.

But what will be equally important leading up to the next election is a plan to win votes in the Québécois nation — incidentally, a term used by Stephen Harper in a motion approved by the House of Commons in 2006.

It may rattle some in Western Canada, but it's the only clear path the Conservative party has to form the next government.

Experienced political strategists and pollsters who have lived in war rooms may think this advice from a marketer fails to recognize the unique realities of politics. It may be so, but marketing literature is filled with success stories of brands that broke the rules in order to break through and find new markets.


About the Author

Éric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing in Toronto. He has helped build brands for over 35 years and is a frequent commentator on political marketing, most recently on CBC's Power & Politics.

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