Salvini’s lessons for brands

Federico Capeci
CEO Italy, Greece & Israel
Kantar - Insights Division

At the time I was writing this article, Matteo Salvini had just passed the 50 percent mark as Italian citizens’ preferred political leader.

His rise has been rapid, up from an already-impressive 17.4 percent approval rating in March 2018. His success comes from his ability to win over new audiences – first those from Forza Italia (his allies during the 2018 political campaign) and from the huge pool of swinging voters, then Five Star supporters (his allies in government). He has even renewed interest in politics among people who abstained on polling day in 2018.

I don’t want to take a political position, but I draw attention to Salvini because his success so far is a tribute to some of Kantar’s learnings about how brands grow:

  • Brands grow when they gain saliency, differentiation and meaningfulness among consumers
  • Effective communication generates unique and lasting memories
  • Gaining new and different consumers is key for growth: penetration really matters

Salvini’s ability to dominate social and traditional media has played a huge role in building his salience. Like many iconic brands, which draw their power from a deepseated cultural tension, in 2018 he used every opportunity to position himself as the “uncandidate” versus the establishment.

Salience and his ability to navigate both old and new media were part of Salvini’s success, but he also dominated on “difference”. Salvini started as the anti-establishment choice, against Italian politicians, the financial system and European institutions, then gained a greater following by tapping into other tensions in Italian citizens’ lives. Concerns about immigration, employment, banks and taxes all helped him be seen as meaningful as he proposed solutions to pressing challenges. He was different, in a meaningful, relevant way.

We know that communication generates results for brands when it makes lasting memories. Again, Salvini exemplified this. He knew what his audience cared about and preached to the choir, tapping into cultural tensions and crafting his message to appeal to his audience’s deeply felt beliefs. As new audiences were drawn to him, the message was adapted.

He also kept the message very simple but highly emotional, knowing that it’s the impression that really counts. He drew on his persona as the anti-establishment candidate in order to drive the perception that he could effect change, and limited the role of external forces and influencers.

Salvini also acted like a winner. He was intuitively and deliberately associated with being confident, due in part to his bullish public statements. It should be noted that neither he nor his rival was previously very well-liked or trusted, so these associations clearly played a vital part in Salvini’s success.

This was about the power of branding and communication. It’s clear: Salvini can teach most of us something about gaining relevance and traction among consumers.

There’s more to this story: Salvini can also teach us how to make our brands grow. The answer is simple: we need to be hungry. There was a turning point in Salvini’s career that clearly demonstrated his ambition to be known and loved by as many people as possible; that was the time when his hidden dream became real.

Our analysis of thousands of brands shows that brand penetration is king. Brand value and its growth are driven by the number of buyers of our product; how often they buy it is of less importance. The Kantar Brand Footprint ranking shows that 79 percent of brands that grew in the past year did so by recruiting more shoppers. Of those that declined, some 84 percent lost shoppers. Only 2 percent of brands we analyzed reached more than 80 percent of a country’s households and nearly one-third commanded less than 5 percent penetration.

Most buyers will only buy your brand once or twice, and this is universal to all brands and categories. While these light buyers might seem insignificant, their collective contribution to your brand’s success is invaluable. Understandably, brands with a higher penetration rate almost always see an accompanying increase in purchase frequency.

Salvini’s story tells us the same thing. All those voters who said “this is just a protest vote” or “I’ll only vote for him this time” are those who, together, delivered his success.

Did you ever imagine you’d learn so much from politicians? From Italian politicians?

It’s time to challenge our marketing and to face the new world. The marketplace is splintering, not with a whimper but with a bang. Old dynamics fail; the new are disruptive. The diversity of tastes, values, ideologies and lifestyles has exploded. Niches are the new scale, bringing more promise and yet more pitfalls. Opportunities for differentiation and innovation are bigger than ever, yet difference and diversity have ignited divisiveness and polarization, too.

Amongst all this, though, there is a new, emerging structure for success; new growth opportunities come from a precise and obsessive understanding of what can make a brand salient, different and meaningful to the largest possible audience, summing up those different niches and tribes under the same, strong and powerful tent that we call “brand”.