The cult of the decent bloke: Paul Catmur on why personality beats policy

Ever since I went to university and discovered that there was life outside suburban London I have voted for the left. Sometimes Labour, sometimes Green but never for the Tories be they UK Conservatives or NZ National.

But I can’t help liking John Key.

Not because of his policies, but because he seems like a decent bloke to have a yarn and share a beer with. And it’s not just me. President Obama liked him enough to play golf with him and he could play golf with anyone in the world. Even Richie McCaw.

Voters don’t judge politicians in isolation, they judge them against who their opponent is. So voters don’t even have to want to have a beer with him, they just have to want to have a beer with him more than his opponent. And looking at Key’s rivals over the last eight years who’s come close? The paucity of our talent pool means that Jacinda Ardern was picked as a potential party leader the minute she took her seat and Hayley Holt will probably already be appearing on preferred Prime Minister polls. (I worked with Hayley last year and between takes she was studying to get her degree in Political Science. Looks like it’s paying off.)

The overall public affection for ‘Teflon’ John was such that however badly he cocked up, it did little to dent his popularity. Donald Trump is riding a similar wave of goodwill and while most of us laugh at the flaxen haired buffoon there are obviously plenty of Americans who just like the guy. It’s his personability that got him elected, not his juvenile, redneck policies.

The converse of Trump being a blowhard, egotistical knob with a complete lack of political experience is that he’s also fun, provocative and politically incorrect. He’s an entertainer who says whatever comes into his mind and his supporters are happy to gloss over his casual racism. Sadly Trump’s worst outbursts are dismissed by his supporters with the same cursory wave that Key fans demonstrated during Ponytail Gate. In the same way that Hitler was invited into power by those who saw him as a bulwark against communism in a weakened Germany, Trump is seen as the antidote to Islam and foreigners in general who are blamed for the waning of America’s undisputed hegemony.

So what’s this got to do with marketing?

Well brands, like politicians, like to talk about what sets them apart. They like to appeal to the rational side of the brain talking about differentiating policies or product attibutes: Toilet paper that’s stronger; cars that have more cylinders; beer that’s been brewed using a unique system that no one’s previously heard of or cared about.

But the truth is that product attributes are rarely the key to sales. In the same way that personality is more important than politics, just ‘liking’ a product is far more important to consumers than any slight differences in that product. How much time do you actually think people want to devote to working out the intricate details of a life insurance policy? Likeability is a short cut to differentiating and we’re all aware of how much consumers are demanding simplicity in every category. We pick our brands like we pick our friends: are they fun to hang out with? Are they unlikely to let you down? Will they contribute their share?

So those who rant about Key’s policies, about how he’s allowed Kiwi kids to grow up in poverty, how he’s ignored the speculative bubble that is Auckland’s housing market, and how he wasted money on a vanity flag project, are barking at the moon. People voted for him because they liked him, and complaining about policy shortcomings won’t change their minds. QED.

The truth is that you don’t have to be the best to succeed, you just have to be liked by most of the people, most of the time. Personality beats policies with brands, as with politicians.

And Key, now you’ve got a bit of time on your hands, let me know if you’d like to come fishing. I’ll bring the beers, all you have to do is keep quiet about those bloody policies.

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