The Karnataka state elections are over. The results are out. And so are the myriad analyses, commentaries and takeaways from experts and social media pundits. One of the big reasons that is always attributed when an incumbent government loses is – “Anti-Incumbency” as if it is a very legitimate excuse in democracy. But we have seen that incumbent governments do not always lose elections. Only when governments do not provide basic governance and when people see a better alternative to the incumbent government, they are thrown out. So, labelling poor governance as Anti-incumbency is a lazy analysis to start with.
In Karnataka, the incumbent BJP government lost due to an absolute lacklustre performance in the last term. Period. Therefore, you see that across different strata of society or geographies with very few exceptions, BJP lost. Arguing that BJP held on to the vote share and therefore it was not a rout serves only as a spin for the media. The state was up for grabs for the Congress. I have a theory for why BJP let things go out of hand. But will keep it for another blog. Since a lot has already been said about how Congress pulled it off, I am going to restrict myself to one important aspect of the Congress campaign which in my opinion is straight out of marketing textbooks.
During elections, it is very common to see all parties making a lot of promises. These promises are made on an ad-hoc basis during election rallies or put in the manifestos which are released by parties before the elections. Though manifestos are released with a lot of fanfare by parties in press conferences, I doubt if they are read by common people. Even if some diligent people read them in newspapers or news portals, they are hardly remembered. Even the press which goes on and on with sundry divisive campaign speeches, doesn’t focus too much on the manifestos. The media also doesn’t do a follow-up on the “Promises Vs Delivery” from the last elections for the party in power. Therefore, manifestos are prepared and released as part of some SOP every time but are hardly given any importance by the parties and the people.
In Marketing communication theory, we are taught a few things. For starters, when communicating a product’s promise, the message should be simple. A product has many features, but it is the benefits that need to be communicated not the features. Again, it is important to pick the key benefits and talk about them rather than try to communicate all the benefits. And then comes the medium through which the product’s promises are communicated. Finally, when the communication need to happen.
Here’s where Congress made an interesting deviation in the way of communicating poll promises and came up a winner in these elections. Here was an incumbent government that was suffering from poor performance. But in order to turn it around to its advantage, Congress had to demonstrate a credible governance model that can be delivered through capable leadership. Luckily for them, they had a credible face in Siddaramaiah. What they needed was a smart way to communicate their plan or promises.
Instead of doing it through the usual Goshna Patra or manifesto, Congress this time communicated its promises through a Guarantee card. And in my opinion from a marketing standpoint, this was a masterstroke for the following reasons:
- People understand the concept of a guarantee card or a warranty card as they see it coming along with the products they buy. In such cards, companies give a guarantee for the performance of their products. The guarantee or the warranty card acts as a contract between the manufacturer and the consumer. So, when Congress put its promises in a guarantee card, people understood the seriousness of the intent.
- Manifestos run into pages usually and therefore nobody remembers or registers much of the content. The Congress guarantee card was just one page and therefore easy to register and recall. Keeping it simple is very important in any communication.
- The other important point is, Congress put forth just five promises in the guarantee card. Instead of including myriad promises trying to please all in the state, Congress focused on five key promises.
- Coming to the promises in the guarantee card themselves, these were 200 Units of free power to each household, Rs 2000 monthly payment to women in each household, Free bus travel to all women in the state, Cash dole to unemployed youth in the state and Free 10 kg rice every month to all BPL families. All are quantifiable, relatable and later can be verified for delivery.
- While it is good to come up with the concept of a guarantee card, it can be a futile exercise if the same is not taken to people properly. Here again, apart from releasing the same to the media in a press conference and putting it out on social media platforms, Congress got the guarantee cards printed and distributed them to people all across the state. I read somewhere that they managed to distribute 2 crore cards in the state. When Congress leaders were distributing the same, it created a buzz and excitement among people who were jostling to collect them as if it was some kind of empowerment.
- As a reinforcement on the polling day, Congress put out full-page ads of the 5 guarantees.
- And finally, the top leadership of the Congress also stressed the point that the guarantees will be implemented in the first cabinet meeting of the government if Congress comes to power.
It is not my case that Congress won handsomely because of just this reason. Victories usually are multifactorial. But I have no doubt in my mind that the mode of communication of the poll promises in the form of a guarantee card certainly helped Congress in establishing credibility as an effective alternative to the BJP this time.
Having said that, communication is just one thing that of course helped Congress to come to power. From here on, delivering on the promises is key. All the positive aspects of the guarantee card idea could come to haunt Congress if it falters in the delivery. But at least from a marketing standpoint, it is an idea that Congress could do well to replicate in the coming state elections later this year and in the Lok Sabha Elections in 2024. It will be interesting to see what BJP, a normally marketing savvy party would come up with to counter Congress’s guarantee card idea.
Post Script: If the “Guarantee card” was a killer idea for the Congress, the “Double Engine Sarkara” plank of the BJP was the opposite. For BJP, one engine was not firing at all or it was firing in the reverse direction. Secondly, a double-engine sarkar could not prevent the situation from going out of hand during the border strife where both the states involved were BJP-ruled states. Therefore, here’s the next marketing takeaway. Don’t go overboard on a feature in your product that is not working.