Knowledge Bank Blog, Shopper Communication

Making Things Stick – What we Learned from the Election

How sticky is your communication?

Remember the game Chinese Whispers?  One person whispers a message to the next person, which is then passed on through a line of people, until the last person announces the message to the group.  Often the final message bears little resemblance to the initial message.  Cue much hilarity.

This outcome – the different message, not the hilarity – is often described as ‘cumulative error’.  Each retelling is slightly different. If you pass the message on once it doesn’t make that much difference.  If you pass it on 10 times it is completely different.  The original message doesn’t stick.

Why are we talking about this?  We think making things stick is incredibly important in our industry.  Most strategies and activities will require a game of Chinese Whispers, before they arrive at shelf or on the shop floor.

Take a new product launch.  NPD starts with Brand and R&D teams.  Then the category team gets involved.  Then the account teams are engaged.  Then a retailer is engaged.  It may get executed with the help of a field sales team.  The potential for cumulative error is great.   Each error could be the difference between success and failure.

So, how do you reduce the risk of this?  Well, we think there are 4 things that are key to making things stick – internally, externally and, ultimately, with shoppers at shelf.  Many of these played out in the Election last week.

    1. Simplicity. We are all bombarded with messages, whether that is in our inboxes or as shoppers walking around a store.  Given this, the simpler the message, the more chance it has of cutting through and being understood.  As we have said before, the human brain likes things to be easy.


Whether you agree with their politics or not, it is perhaps no surprise that the 2 parties that saw the biggest increase in their votes last week, were the ones with the simplest messages – UKIP and SNP.

Retailers and manufacturers are waking up to this.  As Dave Lewis said recently when asked about promotions, ‘the rule I would use is can you tell your mother very quickly, and would she understand it, and would you be proud of the offer you gave her?  If the answer is no, then we won’t do it’.  Not a bad rule of thumb.

    1. Specificity. Being specific is key to driving behaviour change. Anyone can say ‘I’m going to get fit’.  It is a lot harder to say ‘I’m going to do these 3 things to get fit’.  Just as it is easy to say ‘we will make the shopping process easier’ but a lot harder to say ‘this is exactly how we will make the shopping process easier’.  Specificity precedes action.


To win the election, Labour had to drive behaviour change.  They needed a significant swing in votes.  However, without being specific enough about what they were really going to do, they left many voters to use a couple of simple rules of thumb to make a judgement.  Who do I trust on the economy?  Who do I think will make the best Prime Minister?  This played right into Conservative hands.

This is a lesson for any brand that is in a competitive battle, particularly challenger brands competing against brand leaders.  Be specific about why you are good or better.  If you aren’t, don’t expect to change shopper behaviour.

    1. Memorability. The Labour Party went into last week’s election with 6 key pledges, which ended up on the much maligned block of stone.  How many of you can remember any of the pledges?  Probably very few of you.  How many of you can remember Ed Miliband saying that the last Labour government didn’t overspend in the final leaders’ programme on TV?  Probably quite a lot of you.  The wrong thing(s) stuck for Labour.


Memorability is about having messages that resonate with people.  And that stick with them.  We often refer to this as ‘tabloiding’.  Show people 5 tabloid headlines and 5 broadsheet headlines and you can bet they will remember more of the tabloid ones.

    1. Consistency. There are a number of reasons why the Convervatives won a majority last week.  One was consistency of message.  There were 2 or 3 messages that they consistently repeated, no matter who was talking and where they were talking.  This is one of the reasons why the campaign was deemed to be boring by a lot of people.  In this case, boring was successful.


The temptation is always to move onto something new – to keep things fresh and interesting.  However, the quicker you do that, the quicker the message will be lost.  Consistency is key to making things stick.

Following these principles is actually quite risky.  The clearer you are, the more accountable you are.  You can see if something has been achieved or not.  But ambiguity is riskier.  If people don’t know what to do, or have different interpretations of what to do, the right things won’t get done.

So, how much time do you spend on really making things stick?  And are they sticking?

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.