Is Labor branding itself effectively?

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Last year I wrote a (yet uncompleted) series of posts on Labor’s breaking of the immutable rules of marketing. (You can read part 1, part 2 and part 3.) With an election due around September this year, I thought I’d take a quick stock-take on whether Labor is branding itself effectively.

Since the election of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the academic literature on political marketing has grown rapidly — more so since Obama’s victory in 2008.

Catherine Needham from the Queen Mary School of London University for example has an excellent paper, Brand Leaders: Clinton, Blair and the Limitations of the Permanent Campaign, which summarises how both Blair and Clinton were masters of political branding (my emphasis and references removed).

Commercial branding literature identifies six attributes of successful brands. First, brands act as simplifiers, reducing consumer dependence on detailed product information and facilitating choice. Effective brands present ‘a few high quality pieces of information’ and avoid ‘bombarding consumers with large quantities of information and ironically causing confusion’. Second, successful brands are unique, clearly differentiated from competitors. As King points out, ‘A product can be copied by a competitor; a brand is unique’. Between two similar products, it is the brand not the tangible product features that will be the crucial distinction. Advertising strategist Joel Levy argues that tangible product differences are short-lived: ‘in marketing now … the differences aren’t really about performance; they are about the personality and the attributes of the brand’.

Third, brands minimise consumer perception of risk . An effective brand is reassuring, a guarantee of standardisation and replicability. Feldwick notes that the reassurance given by a brand is one of the explanations for people’s willingness to pay more for branded goods than non-branded. Fourth, brands are aspirational, evoking a particular vision of the ‘good life’ and holding out the promise of personal enhancement based on a set of values. Beyond the ‘functional value’ of products, successful brands offer an emotional link to a desired way of life.

Fifth, brands symbolise the internal values of the product or company, providing clear and consistent reasons why consumers should buy that product rather than another. A coherent set of ‘brand values’ ensures that the brand is more than the sum of its product attributes. Brands communicate the values that underpin the company’s approach to product development, be it ‘safety and reliability’ (Volvo), ‘a drivers’ car’ (BMW), or ‘quality engineering’ (Mercedes). Finally, successful brands are perceived as credible, delivering on their brand promises. As Grönroos, puts it, ‘Fulfilling promises that have been given is equally important as a means of achieving customer satisfaction, retention of the customer base, and long-term profitability’. Chris Powell, from the advertising agency BMP DDP, notes: ‘People will always believe their experience over the hype. So … if you tried to market your brand without making the quality of the product superior, you would fall on your face’.

Together these elements of a brand create a relationship of trust between producer and consumer, and shape the buyer’s experience of using the product. They are all subjective, existing only to the extent that they are perceived to do so by the consumer. As a result the success of branding can only be evaluated through market research and future purchasing patterns. In this sense there are clear parallels with assessments of the success of political incumbents.

Needham and others argue that effective political branding would thus follow the same framework. In both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (and, during the presidential campaigns, Obama also) you can see strong elements of these frameworks.

For example, both Blair and Clinton were great simplifiers. Their leaderships reflected a period where complex concepts and public policy were reduced down to easily understandable sound bites. The 2012 Democratic National Convention for example showcased Clinton as “the Explainer in Chief” for his ability to boil down the last four years of Obama’s presidency and make sense of it all:

At the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, he did not disappoint, boiling down Mitt Romney’s case to one sentence: “In Tampa,” Clinton said, “the Republican argument against the president’s reelection was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. . . .‘We left him a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.’ ” He cast the philosophical differences between the parties just as crisply. Republicans, he said, believe in a “winner-take-all, you’re-on-your-own society,” while Democrats seek “a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility — a we’re-all-in-this-together society.”

Blair, likewise, during the 2010 election campaign defended Labour’s record (and his own) and slammed the Conservatives:

The tough thing about being in government, especially as time marches on, is that the disappointments accumulate, the public becomes less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, the call for a time to change becomes easier to make, prospect of change becomes more attractive. But as I always used to say when some in our ranks urged a mantra of “time for a change” in 1997, it is the most vacuous slogan in politics.

“Time for a Change” begs the question: change to what exactly? And the reason an election that seemed certain to some in its outcome, is now in sharp contention, lies precisely in that question.

As the issue has ceased to be “what makes me angry about the government”, and has focused instead on “if I get change, what change exactly am I getting”, so the race has narrowed. Because that is not a question readily or coherently answered; and in so far as it can be answered, gives as much cause for anxiety as for reassurance.

Blair and Clinton, through their personalities, positioned themselves as different from their opponents. Because they captured the centre-ground, they denied the Tories and Republicans the ability to talk to middle-of-the-road voters. This is despite the fact that their third-way policies actually replicated much of the conservative agenda!

This tacking to the right however reassured those same centre-ground voters that they were a safe pair of hands.

Blair’s aspirational vision was tied in with the other elements of his successful branding: credibility and values. Here’s his victory speech from 1997:

I know well what this country has voted for today. It is a mandate for New Labour and I say to the people of this country — we ran for office as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour.

This is not a mandate for dogma or for doctrine, or for a return to the past, but it was a mandate to get those things done in our country that desperately need doing for the future.

And this new Labour government will govern in the interests of all our people — the whole of this nation. That I can promise you. When I became leader of the Labour party some three years ago I set a series of objectives. By and large I believe we have achieved them. Today we have set objectives for new Labour Government – a world class education system. Education is not the privilege of the few but the right of the many.

A new Labour Government that remembers that it was a previous Labour Government that formed and fashioned the welfare state and the National Health Service. It was our proudest creation. It shall be our job and our duty now to modernize it for a modern world, and that we will also do.

We will work in partnership with business to create the dynamic economy, the competitive economy of the future. The one that can meet the challenges of an entirely new century and new age.

And it will be a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country. That cleans it up, that decentralizes it, that gives people hope once again that politics is and always should be about the service of the public. And it shall be a government, too, that gives this country strength and confidence in leadership both at home and abroad, particularly in respect of Europe.

It shall be a government rooted in strong values, the values of justice and progress and community, the values that have guided me all my political life. But a government ready with the courage to embrace the new ideas necessary to make those values live again for today’s world — a government of practical measures in pursuit of noble causes. That is our objective for the people of Britain.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton had the same sentiments in his inauguration speech a few years earlier:

My fellow citizens, today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter, but by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring, a spring reborn in the world’s oldest democracy that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America. …

Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. And so today we pledge an end to the era of deadlock and drift, and a new season of American renewal has begun.

To renew America, we must be bold. We must do what no generation has had to do before. We must invest more in our own people, in their jobs, and in their future, and at the same time cut our massive debt. And we must do so in a world in which we must compete for every opportunity. It will not be easy. It will require sacrifice, but it can be done and done fairly, not choosing sacrifice for its own sake but for our own sake. We must provide for our Nation the way a family provides for its children.

Both leaders speak of values and of hope. Complex issues are presented simply and they attempt to reassure the public that they will govern carefully, cautiously, nobly for all.

This all brings me to contemporary Labor. How does it rate on the six brand criteria?

Since the 2010 election, Labor has been accused over over-simplifying. The most egregious example of this is the “Moving Forward” election slogan and that infamous press conference:

I will be asking Australians for their trust so that we can move forward together.

And moving forward means moving forward with plans to build a sustainable Australia – not a big Australia.

Moving forward means making record investments in solar power and other renewable energies to help us combat climate change and protect our quality of life.

Moving forward means moving forward with budget surpluses and a stronger economy that can offer Australians the opportunity to get a job, keep a job, learn new skills, get a better job and start their own business.

However, on the simplicity front, Labor’s chief spokespeople do seem to have the knack for complicating things. Whereas Tony Abbott has mastered the art of the three word slogan, Gillard and Swan appear to want to talk about lots of things all at once.

A sterling example of this is Swan’s recent John Button lecture, where he professed a great love of Bruce Springsteen. Titled “Land of Hope and Dreams”, the speech wandered from culture, to an autobiography, regular readings of Springsteen lyrics, the mining tax, egalitarian values, the role of money in democracy, distribution of wealth, welfare and appealing to young people.

Supporters may argue that “culture” or “Springsteen” may tie those loose threads together, but regardless, it is difficult to piece together a single, coherent message in that speech. Is it defending the mining tax? Opposing the corrosive effect of big money in democracy? Engaging youth? The speech was called “Land of Hope and Dreams” but unfortunately there was little about hope, or dreams, in the speech.

Likewise, Gillard’s attempts at simplicity, at the ALP National Conference in 2011, shows a misapplication of the principle:

Friends, because we are Australians, because we are Labor people, we know that they are simply wrong.

We have proved the world wrong many times before today.

We are the people who share and stick together.

We are the people who hold on to mateship and the fair go.

We know that to have jobs, we must have growth.

We know that to have fairness, we must have jobs.

So we grow and as we do we spread the growth.

We create jobs – and we demand that every job be a job worth having.

We know ours is a people who work hard – and we deeply believe all deserve a share in the benefits of their hard work.

This is the Labor way.

This is the Australian way.

We follow it simply because we are us.

And this is Labor’s historic task too: to be Australia’s Party, to lead in the Australian way.

In addition to the “we are us” word-soup, Gillard identifies many animating principles of Labor. Fairness, jobs, hard work, mateship, growth, etc. The list is long, and a grab bag of Australian-isms.

Which brings us to the next point, of uniqueness — which specifically is about being perceived as “different” to the opposition. Here, I believe, Labor is indeed unique. But not necessarily in a good way.

The toxicity in New South Wales of the Labor state government — and probably the litany of policy failures in the final years of the Queensland Labor government — have effectively tarnished Labor’s image in the minds of many voters. In Victoria at least, however, this differentiation — of incompetence and the stench of corruption — is not present. Here in Victoria, I believe Labor at a state-level is still perceived as effective, efficient and progressive, although Labor made a massive strategic error in deciding to focus the 2010 election campaign on its weakest asset: John Brumby.

Federally, Labor is positioned as different from the Liberal-National party due to the stark differences in leaders. Gillard and Abbott are polar opposites in many respects — but both are deeply unpopular. I believe that this is largely due to Gillard’s admission of “breaking her promise” over the carbon price. However, despite Labor debasing itself by chasing the non-existent racist anti-asylum seeker vote by reintroducing the Pacific Solution, Gillard and Abbott, and Labor and Liberals are pretty different. The only problem is that both leaders are so disliked that there is also a significant element of voters who simply hate both of them. (This is why, in my view, there is such support in the polls for the return of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull to the respective leaderships.)

Gillard’s admission of a broken promise, combined with the still-unresolved events of her rise to the Labor leadership in 2010 combine to erode her credibility, and worsen public perceptions of her intentions. By this, I mean, her deposing of Rudd and repeated (or at least, reported) compromises to the Greens political party over the carbon price, means that Labor is perceived as risky.

The most stunning example of this is the circumstances in which Gillard game to the prime ministership itself. A coup in 2010 followed by public trashing in 2012 may have largely destroyed Rudd, but it abjectly failed to provide public reassurance that Gillard was a “safe pair of hands”.

Another exemplar of this is the surplus promise. Since 2010, both Gillard and Swan have been on the record promising that Labor would deliver a budget surplus in 2013. There were no qualifications.

Although I support the decision to dump the surplus, the fact is that it builds on the perception already that Labor has no economic credibility. The entire point of all those promises that Labor would deliver a surplus was to repair Labor’s reputation as economic managers — especially after it was trashed (by Labor itself) in the February Gillard-Rudd leadership war.

Unfortunately, 2012 was marked by Gillard’s office trying to position itself on the idea of “trust”:

Four simple words are scrawled on a white board in John McTernan’s office: “Who do you trust?”

Those words neatly explain how the wily Scotsman, a former adviser to Tony Blair, now head of communications for Julia Gillard, plans to win the 2013 federal election.

The audacity is breathtaking. This is the same Gillard, after all, who lied about the carbon tax and brought down a first-term prime minister. And here she is stealing a line from John Howard’s 2004 election campaign playbook.

McTernan tells Labor colleagues who drop by his office, which looks out on to the wisteria vines that wend their way around the Prime Minister’s courtyard, that election 2013 will boil down to this: “Will the election be a choice between two visions for the future or a referendum on the record of the government?

“People are now shifting from looking at us to looking at the choice – and that is massively advantageous to us.”

It’s breathtaking really, because it confuses many other elements of Labor’s brand: uniqueness, aspiration, credibility and is not aspirational. The “who do you trust” slogan is a referendum question, not a choice question — it evokes no vision of the future. It worked for Howard, in part, because he could run on his record versus the unknown Latham.

The “we are us” speech was also notable because it attempted to position Labor as a positive party, compared to Abbott’s “Dr No” persona. Gillard repeatedly says “And we govern for growth by saying yes.” Yes to this, yes to that. To her credit, Gillard and Labor has been an aspirational party that seeks to portray a positive vision of the future (in most cases, asylum seekers aside).

This is something that most Labor Ministers have effectively communicated — a better future. Whether its the Clean Energy Future Act or the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Labor in my view still does embody the notion of building an Australia where everyone can prosper, not just the mega-rich.

How well that aspirational vision trickles down to voters in marginal seats is another matter, especially given Labor’s other communications failures. This is because much of Labor’s aspirational language is largely functional, rather than emotional.

Values is something that has been something of a millstone around Labor’s neck. But if Labor’s actions, words and images cannot evoke its values effortlessly and clearly, then it has a problem. The main problem on values that Labor faces is that it continually stakes and re-stakes its ground — equality, fairness, jobs are all mentioned in Gillard’s 2011 speech — and yet prosecutes policies that contradict those stated values. This obviously creates confusion for supporters and voters alike. What does Labor really stand for, if it is willing to violate core principles? The other challenge on the values front for Labor is that it seeks to “own” values that are associated with the Liberals, such as “economic management” or “border control”.

Because its leaders articulate values that are then routinely ignored, it is no wonder that the many Ministers and policy staffers are struggle to embody a clear and consistent set of values in public policy announcements.

I’ve touched on Labor’s credibility in my discussion on risk. The point of credibility in this regard is the ability to deliver on promises. If Labor’s promise in 2007 was to abolish WorkChoices and take action on climate change, it only partly delivered. Likewise, Labor’s promises on the education revolution, mining tax, health reform, NDIS or NBN, or even the carbon price, have all been only partially realised. This is in large part due to the nature of politics — it is the art of the possible and of compromise. But it is also a problem that Labor over-promises and under delivers.

The inability to deliver on promises is one area where politicians routinely become undone. Even when they’re elected without making many promises at all (like Baillieu in Victoria or O’Farrell in NSW), they still regularly fail to deliver. Delivery, after all, is about perception, not reality.

Above all, radical simplicity is essential to effective political branding. In this, I believe, is Labor’s biggest failure. An inability to articulate a core animating principle of the last few years.

Labor’s communication efforts in government have been the continuation of election-campaign tactics of “feeding the chooks” and dishing out “yarns” to the Press Gallery. Unfortunately, the “announcement a day” strategy of “announceables” doesn’t work when in government. Despite the fact that the government has been doing a lot since 2007, there is no discernible pattern and it is almost impossible to make sense of how one major announcement ties to another.

For Gordon Brown, the core of this is to focus on a small number of “dividing lines” between Labor and the opposition. This has been taken to extremes through the constant obsessive attacks on Abbott (loathsome as he is). Labor has not focused on a few dividing lines, but attacks Abbott on almost everything.

All of this matters because of the contemporary state of democracy — in Australia and other western democracies. Politicians cannot rely on the old pomp and ceremony of high office to justify government actions. In order to persuade and convince the public, they must now rely on more modern communications techniques — on political marketing.

In my view, positive benefits for democracy can come from this modernisation of politics. The old styles of mass-media sloganeering, slandering opponents, and zero-sum thinking have resulted in cynicism from the public and rising partisanship from the media.

While this kind of analysis uses commercial theories, it has a positive notion behind it: that parties should be concerned about what people think and how they behave. It should accept that society is made up of different groups, who are interested in different issues and respond differently to different messages — and who must be mobilised based on those concerns, issues and values.

And surely that’s a good thing.

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