Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Are we really yearning for change?

Nowadays the base assumption of politicians of all parties, in every country, is that people are yearning for change. My suspicion, however, is that many of us want nothing more fervently than to be left alone.

Manufacturers and retailers also believe that they can do better for themselves through the constant quest for something “new and improved”. Even the world’s most powerful brands sometimes get this horribly wrong.

In the 1980s I twice visited the city of Columbus, Georgia. Here, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, druggist John Pemberton dreamt up a medicinal drink flavoured with coca leaves (the source of cocaine) and kola nuts (providing caffeine). He called it Coca-Cola.

Back in 1985, I was proudly presented with one of the first cans of a revolutionary drink called New Coke: like Coca-Cola, only sweeter. It had naturally been launched to replace the original only after a massive programme of market research, which demonstrated unequivocally that it was what the public wanted.

The result was a textbook PR and marketing disaster. However much they claimed to prefer it in blind taste tests, Americans soon made it clear that they were not prepared to drink the new stuff. Within months the old formulation had been reintroduced as “Coke Classic”, and New Coke was eventually dropped altogether.

Clearly having learnt nothing from this story, a couple of years ago Nestlé completely reformulated the 70-year-old Black Magic brand, filling the boxes with supposedly more upmarket square truffles. Once again a consumer backlash led to the reappearance of something called “Black Magic Classic Favourites”, though sadly I can detect little resemblance between these and the original selection my late mother enjoyed so much. On the other hand they have got rid of that Montelimar chocolate that was always left behind at the end, so at least there has been one small improvement.

Compared with New Coke, New Labour has won rather a lot of popular votes and had a decent run on the shelves, but has it ultimately delivered any more consumer satisfaction? The public finances are in ruins, just like in Old Labour days, inequality has increased and for some reason Mr Blair’s performance at the Iraq enquiry reminded me irresistibly of John Major’s cruel line about hearing “the flapping of white coats” whenever he encountered one of his more obsessive critics.

It is head-bangingly frustrating that so much political discourse is devoted to correcting the entirely predictable results of previous Government initiatives. You massively liberalise the licensing laws, then discover that you have a problem with binge drinking. Well, blow me down.

Sell off the playing fields and create a culture of fear in which it is deemed unsafe for children to walk to school, then find that you have an issue with childhood obesity. Who would ever have thought it?

Export the country’s manufacturing jobs to China and rely on the income generated from financial services, then discover that the fantastic results of the number jugglers were actually all achieved with smoke and mirrors. Who would have predicted that? Well, only anyone who had ever read some history.

The problem is that the tyranny of the focus groups gives us, on the other side, the equally flavourless, impeccably socially liberal New Conservatives. Every party is constantly scouring the world for exciting new ideas, and all profess a fanatical commitment to “social mobility” without ever acknowledging that there must be snakes as well as ladders. We cannot all be company chairmen, university professors or members of the cabinet.

I long for someone in British politics with the guts that the Coca-Cola Company showed in admitting that they had got it wrong and reverting to their original formulation.

Bring on an election fought between Classic Conservatives and Labour Classic Favourites, ideally minus that rather sinister ingredient, Lord Montelimar of Foy and Hartlepool.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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