CANNES--The Conservative Party spent too much time attacking Labour during the 2010 UK election campaign, said its former digital head at a session today at the Cannes Lions festival.

Rishi Saha, now director of digital for Hill + Knowlton in the Middle East and Asia, noted that the Conservative Party “went a little bit too negative and hostile”, instead of playing up its own strengths.

He made the comment during a session entitled ‘Selling presidents, prime ministers and products’, which also featured three other senior H+K executives: global vice-chairman Peter Zandan, global chief technology officer Josh Hendler, and vice-chairman Mark McKinnon.

The panel explored the various branding and marketing techniques that have been employed by politicians such as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and David Cameron to drive voter engagement and eventually reap electoral success.

While the Conservatives were favoured to win the 2010 General Election, they were eventually forced to settle for a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, after failing to win an outright majority of seats.

Saha pointed out that politics often spurs hostility, which can sometimes cloud judgement about the correct campaign approach. “My perspective is we didn’t offer enough positive reasons to vote for us,” he said. “But I don’t think we gave enough. We were a little bit hostile towards Labour.”

That lesson, added Saha, is something that brands need to keep in mind. “You can tend to focus on the opinions of a small group of people who surround the organisation. What about the people whose opinions are still up for grabs?”

Negative marketing?

Speaking to the Holmes Report afterwards, the panellists noted that brands should not necessarily shy away from the kind of negative campaigning that can work so effectively in political efforts. McKinnon, who worked on both Bush election campaigns, pointed out that the infamous ‘Wolves’ ad could be seen as a message of protection.

“Companies sell on fear,” added Zanden. “Politics has more licence to be aggressive. But an aggressive approach could be adopted [by companies].”

That willingness to take a stand, said Zanden, is increasingly expected by consumers, marking a shift for companies that “would rather stay neutral.”

Zanden used issues such as climate change and energy as examples of areas where people want companies to clearly express their values.

“The future successful brands will be the ones to step out,” said McKinnon. “It has to be an authentic reflection of the culture, the leadership and the constituency. Stand for something or stand for nothing.”

Digital in 2012

The panellists also discussed the social media trends that are likely to define this year’s presidential election in the US.

Hendler, who worked on President Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign, said that technology “won’t be the competitive advantage that it was.” He also noted that the 2012 campaigns would look to engage people “where they are”, rather than the 2008 example of the Obama campaign launching his own private social network.

“The biggest thing is experimentation,” said Hendler. “The campaigns that will succeed digitally are the ones that will take risks online.”