The power of saying less, or nothing

Shannon Kenna
By Shannon Kenna | 19 May 2023
Shannon Kenna.

Earlier this month the Federal Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, handed down the second Budget for the Labor Government which included the first surplus in over 15 years. While this news might have had some in marketing circles rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of new-found consumer confidence, this was never going to be the case.

The clue was hiding in plain sight on the cover of the Budget documents, as is usually the way. “Stronger foundations for a better future” was a clear signal from the Government that the intention of this Budget was to help shore up the very shaky ground that many Australians find themselves on with a hope that things will be better down the track.

At the forefront of the Budget was spending to help with cost of living relief: energy bills, healthcare costs, support for the vulnerable, and housing affordability. The fact that “cozzie livs” has gone from being a cute catchphrase to the centrepiece of the Federal Budget is a clear signal that the situation is dire for the majority of Australians. So, what is a marketing or sales executive meant to do in this climate, with the threat of a recession looming and an executive team pushing for results?

Maybe it’s time to stop talking and start listening.

If the ultimate format for effective communication is two-way dialogue, then perhaps it’s time to start really listening to what people are saying and responding to their needs. Listen to the consumers who can’t afford their usual grocery items. Listen to the homeowners who are struggling to make their mortgage repayments as well as the heating bill during winter. Listen to the people who can’t afford to see the doctor and get their prescription filled.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When an audience is no longer listening, buying or engaging because they’re too focused on how to pay the bills, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

Starting from scratch is a daunting prospect, particularly when many marketers will never have operated during this kind of global financial uncertainty. When the pandemic threw the whole of society into turmoil, government communicators were able to draw on the principles of crisis communication. There was acknowledgement of the novel situation as well as a novel virus.

Barely a media conference was held without reference to the “unprecedented times”, a more polished way of saying “we’ve never seen this before so bear with us while we sort it out”. For communicators it meant going back to basics, thinking about the audience and what was vital for them to hear to safeguard their health or their finances. Three years on, the communications profession is not being given the same latitude to “sort it out” but is once again in unchartered territory without a playbook to reference.

If the starting point is getting to know the audience, there are worse places to look for inspiration than Psychology 101. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an oldie but a goodie for understanding human behaviour and what motivates an individual. At the most basic level, too many Australians are struggling to meet their basic physiological needs for survival (food, water, warmth, rest). For others, the need for security, safety and health are not being met or are under threat. Until these foundational needs are secured it can be difficult to expect humans to engage with any of the higher order needs.

What came through clearly in the communications for the Budget was the Government has been listening. With a seemingly straightforward tagline, it declared its singular focus on meeting the needs of Australians. While it may be blasphemous to hold a government up as a communication exemplar, there is strength in the simplicity of this approach.

Looking back over the past year, the Government may have been hiding a lesson for the communications profession in plain sight: the power of saying less. The notable decline in large-scale advertising by this Government is certainly in keeping with Labor government philosophy. It also speaks to a strong understanding of their target market.

Across the board, the Albanese Government has taken a more considered and controlled approach to its communication than has been seen for some years across governments of both persuasions. The reduction in the use of traditional advertising media to communicate as a cost-saving measure also sends a message. This is a government that does not want to be seen spending large sums of money talking to people who are not in a position to listen. A quick flip through the Budget Papers shows that it is only the initiatives that have real social merit that are being given funding for significant communication activity.

Imagine the power of this move in the commercial world. Instead of shifting the marketing budget to brand and hoping to win the hearts and minds of the masses, just don’t. If your offering can meet one of the foundational needs of the community, let them know. The thought of not communicating may be unthinkable for some but it would speak volumes to their audiences, literally without saying anything.

Shannon Kenna, Managing Director, The Influence Group and Pollinate, Canberra

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