Marketing Strategy and the 2015 Election Campaign in Canada

I always like to take the opportunity to educate readers of marketing during periods when they are paying attention to a specific event. Also, making marketing relevant in something that public sector marketers and communicators in Canada are keenly interested. In Canada right now we are involved with an election campaign. A few years ago I wrote an article on Marketing Warfare and its relevance to election campaigns. So I am updating the article to the 2015 election.

I constantly hear political pundits talking about political marketing but the truth is that most people who discuss the marketing of political campaigns have probably never read a marketing book and think that communications and marketing strategy is the same thing. They’re not.

So, to my readers who hopefully read my blogs because they think they may learn something about marketing in the public sector. I will try to bring some marketing thinking to the present Canadian election campaign. The Marketing Warfare approach to marketing which was developed by Al Ries and Jack Trout many years ago will be very helpful in explaining how the marketing approach can be helpful to better understand how to develop an effective strategy for a political campaign. It may also be useful for other public sector and non-profit marketing efforts to those who are marketing in a very competitive environment.



First, some background on the Marketing Warfare concept.

In Marketing Warfare Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that marketing is war and that the marketing concepts of customer-oriented philosophy is inadequate. Rather, companies would do better by becoming competitor-oriented. If the key to success were to introduce products closest to those wanted by customers, then the market leader would simply be the company that performed the best marketing. Clearly, much more is required.

To illustrate their point, Ries and Trout compare marketing to a football game. If a team simply identifies the goal line and moves the ball toward it without regard to the competing team, they most likely will be blocked in their efforts. To win the game, the team must focus its efforts on outwitting, outflanking, or over-powering the other side. This is the case in football, war, and marketing, according to Marketing Warfare. Because of the importance of the competition faced by an organization requires a marketing plan that includes an extensive section on competitors.

There’s a saying that it is easier to get to the top than to stay there. Ries and Trout disagree, arguing that once at the top, an organization can use the power of its leadership position to stay there. We are seeing this now with the longest election campaign in Canadian history initiated by the leader and present governing party. The larger organization i.e. the Conservatives has the resources to outnumber smaller competitors. It can advertise more, perform more marketing research and generally do a lot more on the ground promotion, etc. This is not to say that smaller political parties do not stand a chance. As a matter of fact one of the political parties with limited funds is presently leading in the polls i.e. the NDP. Rather, political parties with fewer resources must recognize the principle of force and attempt to win the battle by means of a superior strategy.

In the private sector some managers believe that a better product/service will overcome other weaknesses. Again, Ries and Trout disagree. Once consumers already have in their minds that a product is number one, it is extremely difficult for another product, even if superior, to take over that number one place in the consumer’s mind. For example in politics it is always challenging to defeat the incumbent.

The way to win the battle is not only to recruit a superior team (although this is a good thing to do) or to develop a superior product/program. Rather, Ries and Trout argue that to win the battle, an organization must successfully execute a superior strategy.

Now this is pretty basic marketing, but many people who do not understand marketing think that marketing is about creating better or more compelling products, programs and services. This may sound logical to the uninitiated but marketers know that this is not necessarily true.

Now think of the Canadian political situation.  You have the Conservatives, New Democratic Party (NDP), Liberals, Bloc Quebecois (BQ) and the Greens as well as a number of other fringe parties but for this blog we will use these five.

Ries and Trout argue that marketing battles do not take place in geographic areas. Rather, marketing battles take place in the mind of the consumer. Ries and Trout propose that the most important information is to know which positions are held by which organizations in the mind of the consumer. In other words, who holds the high ground?

Ries and Trout discuss four strategies for fighting a marketing war:

  • defensive
  • offensive
  • flanking
  • guerrilla


marketing warfare

A company’s market share relative to that of competitors determines which strategy is appropriate. There often is a significant market share gap between two competitors such that each has more market share compared to the next weaker competitor. Because of this large gap, the principle of force plays an important role in the choice of a strategy.

In such an environment, each of the five parties has a different objective:

  • Number 1 market domination: This would be the Conservatives who are governing party and the party to beat
  • Number 2 increased market share: This is the NDP who are presently number 2 and the official opposition but show strong signs of potentially winning
  • Number 3 survival:  This is the Liberals which are the third party and making it a close race but have a long way to go with a third of the seats of the number 2 party.
  • Number 4 survival: The Greens and the BQ who are small players who may win a few seats in certain parts of Canada but are really fringe players.

According to Ries and Trout, the main competitor is the market leader that holds the majority of the market share i.e.  The government. The best strategy for such an organization is a defensive one. Note the Conservatives are clearly in a defensive mode trying to protect their lead and not taking too many chances although they seem to be losing ground at the moment but that can change in a very long campaign.

The number two best strategy is an offensive attack (i.e. the NDP) on the market leader organization. The reason is that the gaining of market share from the number three organization is unlikely to make a large impact on the much larger number two organization. However, there are potentially significant rewards if market share can be gained from the dominant organization – the Conservatives. Some may argue that the Liberals and NDP share the vote (2 left of centre parties) and they also split the vote allowing the Conservatives to come up the middle. By eliminating the competition i.e. Number 3, puts them head to head with the Number 1 leader. That is why the NDP are totally focused on the Conservatives and pay very little attention to the Liberals which may come back to “haunt them” in the upcoming weeks.

The number three organization is too small to sustain an offensive attack on a larger organization. (Although, this seems to be what the Liberals are doing… we will see if it works). Its best strategy often is to launch a flanking attack, avoiding direct competition, for example, by launching a program that is positioned very differently from those of the Conservatives and NDP. They are doing this somewhat with their latest ads and campaigning but will it be enough? (Note that the Liberals are trying to do to Mr. Mulcair what the Ontario Liberals did to the  NDP – outflank them on the left.)

The smallest organization probably does not have sufficient resources to launch any type of sustained attack. If it launched flanking program/policy a larger competitor likely would launch a similar one and would have the resources to win more voters. The smallest organization would do best to pursue a guerrilla strategy, identifying a segment that is large enough to be interesting to them (i.e. the Quebec voters for the Bloc and Environmentalists for the Greens) but not large enough to attract too much competition from any of the larger organizations except in very niche markets.

So what are the key strategies for the political parties?

A defensive strategy is appropriate for the market leader. Ries and Trout outline three basic principles of defensive marketing warfare:

  1. Defensive strategies should only be pursued by the market leader. It is self-defeating for an organization to pretend that it is the market leader for the purpose of strategy selection. The market leader is the organization who has attained that position in the mind of the consumer.
  2. Attacking yourself is the best defensive strategy. Introducing programs better than your existing ones pre-empt similar moves by the competition. Even if the new programs or policies have less impact that your existing programs, it accomplishes the more important long-term goal of protecting the organization’s market share.
  3. The leader should always block strong offensive moves made by competitors. If the leader fails to do so, the competitor may become entrenched and permanently maintain market share.

An offensive strategy is appropriate for an organization that is number 2 in the market. Ries and Trout present the following three principles of offensive strategy:

  1. The challenger’s primary concern should be the strength of the leader’s position, not the challenger’s own strengths and weaknesses.
  2. The challenger should seek a weakness in the leader’s strength – not simply a weakness in the leader’s position.
  3. Attack on as narrow a front as possible. Avoid a broad attack at all costs.

The strength of the leader’s position is of primary importance because the leader has the top position in the mind of the consumer, and it is this position that must be attacked.

A weakness in the leader’s strength must be found. Simply attacking any weakness is insufficient. For example, the leader may develop policies or programs which are similar to the challenger. The leader usually has the resources to defend against an attack against its weaknesses, whereas there may be weaknesses inherent in the leader’s strengths that cannot be defended.

The challenger should attack on as narrow a front as possible. Generally, this means focusing on programs and policies where the leader is weak and cannot adopt as it would destroy their overall strategy.

For example the political program of the NDP or even the Liberals if offered by the Conservatives would conflict with their basic strategy not to mention their conservative principles. The reason for keeping the attack narrow is the principle of force; a narrow attack allows the challenger to concentrate its resources in the narrow area, and in that area may present more force than the leader.

Many number two political parties ignore this principle and try to increase market share by broadening their programs and policies to compete in more areas, often with disastrous consequences. A narrow attack is particularly effective when the leader has attempted to be all things to all people with their programs and policies. Many Conservatives feel that the party has become very much like their competition in some ways. In that situation, a challenger can identify a segment within the leader’s market and offer a program and policy that serves only that segment. The challenger then stands a chance of winning a position in the voter’s mind for that more narrow class of program.

A flanking attack is not a direct attack on the leader, but rather, an attack in an area where the leader has not established a strong position. Ries and Trout present the following three flanking principles:

  1. A flanking move is best made in an uncontested area. The product should be in a new category that does not compete directly with the leader and should be the first to target the segment.
  2. A flanking move should have an element of surprise. Surprise is important to prevent the leader from using its enormous resources to counter the move before it gains momentum.
  3. Follow-through (pursuit) is equally as important as the attack itself. The organization should follow-through and focus on solidifying its position once it is established before competitors launch competing products/policies/programs. Too often, political parties turn their attention to the programs and policies that are not performing well rather than strengthening the position of the winners. If the party does not have the resources to strengthen its newly won position, then perhaps it should have used a guerrilla strategy instead of a flanking one.

A flanking move does not require a totally new program. Instead, the program only needs to be different enough to carve its own position. Flanking is not a low-risk strategy. Market acceptance of an innovative program is unknown, and test marketing must be kept to a minimum to guard the element of surprise. Whether the leader will take prompt action in response is an unknown. Being well-tuned to the political environment is helpful since their public speeches often provide clues about their stance on potential programs. This is where the Liberals should have a strategy which is very different from its competitors’ and needs to find policies and programs that are totally different than the Conservatives and NDP.

Guerrilla marketing differs from a flanking campaign in that a guerrilla move is relatively small and differs significantly from the leader’s position. Guerrilla marketing is appropriate for organizations that, relative to the competition, are too small to launch offensive or flanking moves. Ries and Trout list the following three principles of guerrilla marketing warfare:

  1. Identify a segment that is small enough to defend. For example, the scope can be limited geographically, demographically, etc.
  2. Never act like the leader, even if successful in the guerrilla attack. Some parties that make a guerrilla move are successful in it and begin to act like the leader, building a larger, bureaucratic organization that slows it down and increases overhead costs. A guerrilla should resist the temptation to give up its lean and nimble organization.
  3. Be ready to enter or exit on short notice. If the market for the program takes a negative turn, the guerrilla should exit quickly rather than waste resources. Because the guerrilla has a nimble organization, it is better able to make a quick exit without suffering huge losses. Similarly, the guerrilla can respond more quickly to a market opportunity without spending a long period having committees analyze it. Guerrilla opportunities sometimes arise when a large organization discontinue marketing an idea or program, leaving a gap on which the guerrilla can capitalize if it acts quickly. For example the Conservatives seem to have abandoned the environment leaving a large opening for the Greens (the problem is that the Environment is no longer top of mind among the voters, but that could change).

The idea of guerrilla marketing is to direct resources into a limited area, using the principle of force to win that area.

Demographic guerrillas target a specific segment of the population. (Bloc’s focus is on French speaking Quebecker). Guerrillas target a specific field or issue using vertical marketing to tailor a program to the special needs of that niche. The focus is narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow. They may offer a unique program for which there is a small market.

Strategy can be developed using a top-down or a bottom-up approach. Ries and Trout argue for the bottom-up approach because a deep knowledge of the tactics actually used is needed to formulate a strategy that has the goal of achieving tactical objectives. More specifically, Ries and Trout argue that the sole purpose of a strategy is to put the forces in motion to overpower the competitor at the point of contact using the principle of force. In the marketing arena, it means overpowering the competitor in a specific position in the mind of the voter.

As I have mentioned in many of my blogs Marketing is first about strategy and not necessarily tactics. Ries and Trout explain that a good strategy does not depend on brilliant tactics. Mediocre tactics are usually sufficient for a good strategy. Even the best possible tactics are unlikely to compensate for a poor strategy. In political campaigns, advertising can be considered a tactic and many campaign managers falsely assume that success depends almost entirely on the quality of the advertising campaign. If a strategy requires top-notch tactics to win the battle, Ries and Trout maintain that such a strategy is unsound because tactical brilliance is rare.

Any strategy should take into account the probable response of the competitor. The best way to protect against a response is to attack the weakness in the leader’s strength so that the leader cannot respond without giving up its strength.

To support the argument of a bottom-up strategy, Ries and Trout point out that many large organizations incorrectly believe that they can do anything if they simply allocate enough resources. History shows otherwise and they give many examples in the business world. Such diversions they say “shift resources away from the point of battle where they are needed. This is one of the dangers that can be avoided by a bottom-up strategy based on what can be accomplished on the tactical level.”

Ries and Trout believe in having relatively few people involved in the strategic process. The organization needs a strong “marketing general” to formulate the strategy from the tactical realities. A marketing general has the following characteristics:

  • Flexibility – to adjust the strategy to the situation.
  • Courage – to make a decision and stand by it.
  • Boldness – to act without hesitation when the time is right.
  • Knows the facts – in order to formulate strategy from the ground up.
  • Knows the rules – but internalize them so they can be forgotten.
  • Lucky – marketing warfare has an element of chance; a good strategy only makes the odds more favourable.


Ries’ and Trout’s work in the business world have interesting and useful commonalities between political marketing strategy and business marketing strategy. The appropriate marketing strategy in business and politics depends on the organization’s position relative to its opponents. In developing its strategy, the political party must objectively determine its position in the market. Once this is done, a defensive, offensive, flanking, or guerrilla strategy can be selected depending on their position relative to the competition. It also helps if you have a marketing strategist running your campaign.


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Role of Advertising in Government

I spent many years directing major government advertising campaigns for the federal government. I am a very strong believer in government using advertising campaigns to promote programs, motivating audiences to improve their health and other important issues. During my career in government, I can honestly say that the motivation for the campaigns my team were involved with focused on important topics and issues particularly social marketing campaigns in the health area whose main objectives were to change attitudes and behaviours.

I have always felt that the advertising techniques used to promote commercial goods and services can be used to inform, educate and motivate the public about non-commercial issues, such as health, energy conservation and the environment. Advertising, in its non-commercial guise, is a powerful marketing tool capable of reaching and motivating large audiences.

However there has been some controversy in recent years on how advertising is being used by the Canadian government. Bruce Anderson recently wrote in the Globe and Mail “I’m not naive about government advertising or against it in every form. Earlier in my career, I worked on ad campaigns about the deficit, national unity and the GST, among others. Looking back, I’m not certain that some of the campaigns I worked on didn’t cross the line I’m drawing in this column. But each of those campaigns was at least about trying to build momentum behind an important and difficult change for the country.

But an ad campaign to vilify cellphone companies? To tell us something vague about a war fought 200 years ago? To let me know, just in case I was wondering, that the government truly cares for veterans? I’ve no quarrel with governments advertising to make people aware of programs and services, to encourage socially useful behaviour, and to build knowledge around important national issues.”

Government advertising can be controversial if it conflicts with citizens’ views about the proper role of government. Yet some government advertising is accepted as a normal part of government information activities.

According to the federal government website the Government of Canada’s approach to advertising is guided by the principles of value for money, transparency and accountability. According to the federal Treasury Board directive, advertising is an important way for the Government of Canada to communicate with Canadians about policies, programs, services and initiatives, public rights and responsibilities, and risks to public health, safety and the environment.

So one has to wonder why the government has launched a $4-million national ad campaign celebrating the Fathers of Confederation and a country that has become “strong, proud and free” more than two years in advance of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., is currently doing research on how the brand message of governing parties gets entwined with government advertising.

He compared the current Canada 150th birthday ads with those commissioned for the country’s 125th anniversary under the Brian Mulroney government in 1992. Marland states that “the Canada 125 ads were designed by politically correct bureaucrats; the 150 ads are designed by experienced marketers.”

He goes on to say that “It’s very smart marketing because it’s reinforcing other messages the government is sending out.” The ads emphasize the importance of strong leadership, highlight hockey and embraces the Conservative party history-based patriotism. Source

The government has spent more than $7-million on a 10-week, anti-drug advertising campaign. The TV and Internet ads by Health Canada ran parallel to a partisan radio ad campaign, paid for by the Conservative party, which attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau over his promise to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

As someone who was very involved in Health Canada campaigns dating back to 1981, there is no question that Health Canada has been communicating the dangers of drugs for many years and should certainly continue to support parents with the tools they need to ensure children to live drug-free lives. This is a very important mandate. This is particularly important now because Canadian youth are the biggest pot consumers in the western world, according to the United Nations.

What is unfortunate is politicizing an important effort to reduce drug use. The government which has for decades involved health organizations in their health campaigns attempted to involve three very prominent health organizations in the campaign, however, they publicly distancing themselves from the campaign because they felt they were political in nature. Source

The government spent $14.8-million in 2013 promoting “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” a catchphrase first created by the government to promote stimulus spending. As I pointed out in a previous blog this campaign has clearly not been very successful and has been tainted as partisan advertising.

The $2.5-million campaign to advertise a job grant program that did not exist is also questionable use of advertising by Government.


SCREEN GRAB - Canada's Economic Action Plan website -   video still -The Canada Job Grant  0520-jobs-grant-ads

This past week we learned about a multimillion-dollar campaign to market Canadian oil in the U.S. The Maple Leaf was plastered on the walls of subway stops in Washington, D.C., and it popped up in all sorts of American publications with messages such as “America’s Best Energy Partner” and “Friends and Neighbors.”



The $1.6-million (U.S.) ad campaign launched in 2013 was followed up by a $24-million, two-year international program. One can dispute if this was an effective use of ad dollars and perhaps there were better communication tactics that could have been used in this campaign.

The results of the campaign showed most D.C. respondents had seen the ads. They didn’t quite agree, however, on what they’d seen. The most popular take-away message, at 17 per cent, was that Canada and the U.S. were friends and energy partners. Building Keystone XL got 11 per cent.

One federal government official stated the ads were never designed to sway people about Keystone. They were there to spread a broader message people could remember and repeat, about an energy partnership with Canada. According to the government the ads were there to help create the political space for a (Keystone) approval which Canada has not yet received.

Let me know what you think.


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Federal Government Advertising Losing Credibility

Last year I wrote a blog “Has federal government communications and marketing become too politicized?”  In the blog I pointed out that the application of strategic communications has shifted focus from substance to image, from information to promotion, and from policy to communications. While it is legitimate for governments to communicate with citizens and it is not unusual for them to want to persuade those citizens, the question becomes when and where to draw the line.

Now an independent public service can accommodate modern marketing techniques if it has the checks and balances. For example I pointed out that my former employer Health Canada had a well-functioning social marketing program for public health promotion campaigns for many years. But after the Gomery Enquiry, a decision was made to centralize all of the advertising money in each department into the Privy Council Office which led to a politicization of advertising (see blogs written on the  economic action plan:  and )

Communications and marketing at all levels of government has become embedded in the structure of government; and the communications work environment has become more politicized by centralized operations and direction; Strategic communications and this would include marketing relies on embedding communications and marketing activities into the structures of the public service, thus institutionalizing it, and then consolidating it within centralized functions.

Therefore when problems hits the government that may hurt their political positioning, communications and marketing people in today’s public service communicators tend to become involved in assisting in the defense of the government. They are left with little choice as the whole communications and marketing function have become, in the past decade, an integral part of the government and has become politicized.

For example, Warning young people about the dangers of smoking pot should be about as controversial as telling them to brush their teeth.

But   Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail  states in Canada, in 2014, where the  government’s insistence on putting its political stamp on policies that were previously left to independent agencies or experts in the bureaucracy means that even its public service announcements (PSAs) are suspect. Where an anti-pot ad aimed at teens seems partisan.

The most recent anti-marijuana campaign, in particular, seems conveniently timed to discredit the Liberal Leader who supports legalizing pot according to Yakabuski. What’s really sad about this modus operandi is that worthy public health initiatives are discredited because fewer people trust government to act in anything but its own interest.

An article by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, published in the June issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that pot-smoking teens, whose brains are still developing, risk permanent impairment. It found that “regular marijuana use in the early teen years lowers IQ into adulthood, even if users stopped smoking marijuana as adults.”

Yet the country’s medical establishment ( who have partnered with Health Canada for many years) pulled out of Health Canada’s upcoming ad campaign aimed at discouraging young people from smoking marijuana and abusing prescription drugs because it did not want to be seen as a political pawn. The Canadian Medical Association and two other groups representing the country’s doctors had earlier agreed to let their logos be used in the multimillion-dollar campaign that was reportedly set to launch this fall.

“The campaign, unfortunately, took a twist that looked a little political,” outgoing CMA president Louis Hugo Francescutti said. “And as a non-partisan organization, we heard from our members loud and clear that they did not want us to be affiliated with that.”

The bigger question according to Yakabuski is if many parents see this campaign as “propaganda about Mr. Trudeau’s marijuana proposal”. It will be impossible for them to take the ads at face value. He ends his article with “It’s a sad day when you can’t trust your own government’s PSAs.”

Partisan political advertising masquerading as vital government information or public service was not invented by the Conservative government. The Liberals did the same thing in their time, but since 2006, the government has taken this practice to new heights and you can assume whoever is in power in the future will do the same thing.