Political brands: just a buzzword or a real thing?

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Read any number of journalist or blogger commentaries over the last several years and you will have seen the infiltration of marketing terms like “brand”, “positioning”, public relations, image management and more.

Obama is the most recognisable example of this “political brand” phenomenon, but we’ve seen it elsewhere: New Labour under Tony Blair (Gordon Brown hired branding expert David Muir as his director of strategy), Kevin 07 and the updated party livery, the Greens party have hired brand agency Republic of Everyone for the 2013 election, even the modernisation of the New Democrats under Jack Layton in Canada.

In Australia, Labor has been most subjected to this, as commentators have struggled to explain Labor’s declining fortunes both at the ballot box, such as in New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and most recently, Western Australia. The “media narrative” is that the (Federal) “Labor Brand” is toxic.

Deputy leader of the Opposition Roger Cook admitted there had been some damage to the Labor brand from the Federal Government.

“To what extent it had a role to play in the state election is very difficult to say,” he said.

Whether it’s the negative connotations of NSW Labor that has rubbed off on Federal Labor, or antipathy towards Gillard, the ABC reported on election eve:

It’s well accepted that federal Labor’s brand is especially poisonous in Western Australia.

The WA branch recognised this a while back and changed all of its branding and logos to create some distance.

Labor leader Mark McGowan looks decidedly awkward at the mere mention of the Prime Minister’s name.

But just how poisonous is federal Labor’s brand in WA?

One Labor campaign manager has told the ABC the party is bracing for a uniform swing against it of around 5 per cent and puts most of that down to voter dislike of Ms Gillard.

I’ve come across a lot of political activists, inside and outside of political parties, who decry this kind of language. To them, the commercial nature of “brands” connotes markets and consumers, transactional relationships and commercialism. Hardly the stuff of principled ideology or self-less political campaigning!

In practice though, political branding exercises are often quite different to commercial branding.

A commercial brand is a promise, built on a set of ideas, attributes and qualities that a consumer holds in his or her mind. Often the qualities or ideas are emotional in nature, as the company attempts to deliberately evoke those emotional responses. For example, think Huggies nappies, which strongly evokes parents emotions towards their babies, or the instant coffee brand Moccona, which attempt to fuse peoples’ love of coffee, the act of searching for love, and instant coffee.

There is also plenty of evidence that people can have real, genuine relationships with brands. People form emotional relationships with brands, with all the qualities that you would normally expect between two people.

Before the publication of this research, academic thinking on brands and consumers’ brand behaviors was driven by close adherence to economic and cognitive principles. Brands were simply collections of product attributes and benefits that consumers used when making choice decisions, and familiar brands helped people gain an idea of product quality, reduce risks, and save time. This was a very left-brained, company-centric, highly-rational branding world based on an economics of benefits versus costs. In fact, throughout the late 1980s, several business publications ran cover stories like “The Death of the Brand” after the rise of Walmart, Costco, and relentless couponing.

While useful and certainly not wrong, this slavish attention to cognitive psychology and economics left something important out of the branding equation: the psycho-social-cultural-emotional story of consumers and their brands. As early as the 1950s, Harvard Business Review ran articles, including “The Product and the Brand” (PDF) and “Symbols for Sale” (PDF), that called attention to the unacknowledged fact that brands were meaning-laden symbols that communicated important things about people and their worlds. This thinking finally took hold during the 1980s when consumer behavior sociologists and anthropologists urged researchers to look beyond cognition to understand deeper the socio-cultural stories behind the products that people buy and use.

Another revolution in marketing helped as well: the relationship paradigm shift. In the late 1980s, the American Marketing Association changed its definitions of marketing to focus on relationships — mutually reciprocating, long-term engagements that form between customers and firms — and not on simple gives and gets. Technologies that allowed customized communications fueled this as well by allowing one-to-one interactions over time. Relationship-rich concepts, such as loyalty, satisfaction, interdependency, commitment, and trust, took center stage.

Brands became meaning-laden symbols that helped people live their lives. We learned that the essence of a given brand was not an inherent property of that brand as defined by marketers and reinforced in a 30-second ad. People’s life projects, identity tasks, life themes, current concerns, cohorts, etc. provide the lenses through which brands come to have meaning. This research helped pave the way for the paradigm of co-creation enabled by Web 2.0 technology and embraced in brand marketing today.

This research also made clear that brand relationships are very complex phenomena, much like human relationships. Marketers tended to think only of strong versus weak connections, wherein consumers were passionately committed for the long-term. The reality is one of a complex relationship space that exists alongside so-called “brand marriages” to include best friendships, childhood friendships, and flings. Most importantly, there exist negatively-toned relationships that received little if any research attention: dependencies, abused spouses, master-slaves, and adversaries, for example.

Consider for a moment.

Brands are meaning-laden symbols. They are rich in concepts such as loyalty, commitment, interdependence, and trust. They exist in the mind of the consumer, not as defined by marketers. Brands exist in a social context.

I think progressive distaste for the idea of political brands is that it makes the party, the party’s values, or the party’s leader, a product to be sold to the electorate. It makes political activism more of a functional, transactional endeavour, rather than part of a proud and long tradition of civic engagement. It makes political activism or party affiliation a lifestyle choice, like owning an iPhone or a Jeep, rather than saying something profound about values and beliefs.

Most real-world political branding boils down to creating a set of consistent visual political communication principles. For example, a graphic style-guide, establishing a set of words or phrases as political key messages to be repeated by party campaign principals. Often it will involve creating or refining a party logo — the “O” for Obama or changing the blue and red ALP flag to the red square in 2007.

Political marketing in practice — that is, what is carried out by the party officials — is mostly about establishing internal guidelines for political communication, and therefore influencing the activities of various party affiliated groups, such as ministerial advisors, government communication units and campaign HQ.

In my view, a major problem for political campaigners is that they are using the tools of marketing (focus groups, direct mail, TV and radio ads, public relations) to persuade voters who lack enduring political convictions for a particular party to support that party or candidate. Elections are treated as one-off events, where voter support is raised from zero to 50.1%. The process as it stands currently is that political parties try to get voters to “buy” their party once each three or four years, but do very little in between (apart from the “media strategies” that govern day to day politics).

The problem is that doing this creates no long-term commitment amongst those voters towards the party; it actually encourages political cynicism and attitudes that politics is transactional. What’s more, the constant negative campaigning diminishes peoples’ trust in the very institutions that political parties are trying to capture (and trust is a very important quality in politics).

Despite this, political parties do have brands. People — voters, citizens, electors — do form relationships with political parties. The strong feelings, emotions and commitment that many people feel towards Labor, especially the feelings of being let down, betrayed or disappointment, by the party (or the party’s leader, who is a proxy for the party), the attributes associated with a party’s symbols suggests that there is … something there, held in the minds of voters rather than the grasp of party HQ. Is it a political brand? There could be other words or labels. But why not just use “brand”?

Voters perceive a great deal more from party communications than just the “message” being broadcast. All of a party’s activities, and the statements of its spokespeople can create resonating emotional themes and can draw supporters closer, or drive them away.

Political brands operate across media channels — that is, people receive messages through a variety of means, including the TV, newspapers, online or through word-of-mouth. Tiny details — also called “low information signals” or “cognitive shortcuts” become very important in this context. They help cut through the clutter and white-noise of contemporary media consumption

People who decry brands and marketing in politics, in my view, are stuck in an outdated mindset, harking back to a golden age that never really existed. Political parties, especially mass political parties like Labor, have always used contemporary marketing techniques.

Labor was one of the first parties to use television and radio ads, to use mass-media messaging in newspapers or through widely distributed posters. Labor used contemporary marketing images to emphasise certain values or build support for its causes — such as opposing conscription. The Labor name and its various symbols implied a strong promise between the party, its representatives, and its voters. A promise of solidarity, equality, opportunity, the dignity of work, and justice for the most vulnerable.

Today, critics of political brands are stuck in the mindset of the 1980s — of brands being like coupons tied to corporate logos and of short-term promotions. They argue against the notion that the design or colour of a party logo could influence someone’s vote!

The columnists and pundits in the mainstream media who talk of party brands are using the “cognitive shortcut” to refer to the umbrella of symbols, concepts, personalities and policies of the party.

Now, I am not aware of research about the influence of a political brand on voting intentions or voter behaviour. I suspect there isn’t much research of that kind. In the commercial world, there is research into the (negative) effect that certain short-term promotional activities can have on brand equity:

A new product feature [policies] or promotion [visits to Rooty Hill RSL] may decrease a brand’s overall choice probability when the segment of consumers who perceive it as providing little or no value is large compared to the segment that finds the feature attractive. … The results suggest that, when consumers are uncertain about the values of products and about their preferences, such features and premiums provide reasons against buying the promoted brands and are seen as susceptible to criticism.

Brands come into the purchase equation at the point where someone is moving from an “awareness set” to a “consideration set” to a “choice set”. For example, someone wants to buy a hatchback car. The awareness set is all the hatchback cars they know of, and the consideration set includes the cars that have been whittled down during their problem-solving process: e.g. a Toyota, Mitsubishi or Ford. The cars are further reduced to just two options — the choice set — from which the person buys one.

Of course, voting is not always a problem solving situation for voters, and the awareness, consideration and choice sets are often all made up of the same two (or three) parties.

Brands are important though in order to make it past the “awareness” phase into the consideration and choice sets. Of course, word-of-mouth, campaigning, ads, policy announcements and PR, and so on are important in influencing someone’s voting choice.

UPDATE

There’s generally a view in Australia that most people vote for a party rather than a candidate.

Individual candidates typically lack name recognition (awareness), one of the first hurdles to actually getting someone to vote for you.  This is why most candidates most of the time place their party affiliation front-and-centre. (The exception is when the party is perceived poorly, so party logos and other symbols, like photos with leaders, are absent from election material.)

Another related problem is that candidates (without parties) will often lack the political and community infrastructure to staff polling booths; the lack of someone handing out “how to vote” cards on election day can reduce a person or party’s vote by quite a bit.

In the Western Australian election that took place on Saturday 9 March, 2013, we can get a glimpse of what impact a party’s brand has on voting behaviour.

Fremantle saw a sitting MP with high name recognition (former Greens Party member Adele Carles) receive a mere 5.7 percent of the vote.

In contrast, the Labor candidate received 39.1 percent, the Liberals got 35.8 percent, and the Greens party 17.3%. Unless there was a strong campaign run to promote the individual Labor candidate Simone McGurk, or Green Party member Andrew Sullivan, it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of voters in that seat made their voting decision based on their assessment of the party alone.

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3 Responses to “Political brands: just a buzzword or a real thing?”

  1. I was going to respond at length, but I suspect we’ll never see eye to eye on this, so I’ll just say “yeah nah”

  2. Hi Alex,

    If:

    a) Political parties are primarily ‘brands’; and
    b) “Most real-world political branding boils down to creating a set of consistent visual political communication principles.”

    then it seems to me to follow that political parties are essentially just a consistent set of visual communication principles. That’s pretty hollow to me. Is that all you think political parties are?

    You say that “Brands are meaning-laden symbols. They are rich in concepts such as loyalty, commitment, interdependence, and trust. They exist in the mind of the consumer, not as defined by marketers. Brands exist in a social context.”

    Many things are meaning-laden and exist in a social context. A man might be loyal, committed to, interdependent with, and trusting of his wife. Does that make his wife a brand? Marriages exist in a social context. Does that make a marriage a brand? Married couples present a certain view of themselves to the world by the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they act. Does that make a marriage a brand? If it does, then it seems to me that everything is conceivable a ‘brand’ and that the concept lacks much meaning.

    Your view seems to go further though – many things may have an element of ‘branding’ in them, but political parties are *primarily* brands. If that is true, and if branding is primarily about establishing a consistent set of communication principles, then why are you a partisan? Can partisanship in this context mean anything other than fidelity to one set of communication principles over another?

    Incidentally, you pretty much summarise my view in this paragraph:

    “I think progressive distaste for the idea of political brands is that it makes the party, the party’s values, or the party’s leader, a product to be sold to the electorate. It makes political activism more of a functional, transactional endeavour, rather than part of a proud and long tradition of civic engagement. It makes political activism or party affiliation a lifestyle choice, like owning an iPhone or a Jeep, rather than saying something profound about values and beliefs.”

    • Thanks for the more considered comment. My juxtaposition of a) and b) was to counterpose the theory and reality.

      In practice, political campaigners treat brands as the logo and design of a campaign. You are absolutely correct. This is hollow. I don’t believe that is what political parties are. But that is what most political campaigners seem to treat as “the brand”. Labor’s “brand” is its red and blue logo, and the various livery of campaign set pieces.

      This is not how it should be.

      Incidentally, major corporations do not treat their brands this way. Nor do major non-profit organisations, like WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam or Amnesty International.

      My point of saying that brands have meaning and symbolism, and that people can have relationships with them, is to suggest that they are more than just logos and style guides. Just because you can have a relationship with something, doesn’t make it a brand. What is interesting is that people reify brands and give them human characteristics.

      My point is that brands are more than just the logo.

      Just as Nike is more than the swoosh logo — it is the relationship that tens of thousands of amateur sportspeople have with it, the trust they imbue in it, the recommendations they make to friends, their feelings towards that swoosh. Those are attributes that those people have within them, not something that is owned by the Nike Corporation or its Chief Marketing Officer.

      Many people do the same for the symbols and surrogates of the Labor Party. They have a relationship with the party and its symbols. They imbue the signs of Labor with meaning; they can feel betrayed, not by individual party leaders but with the party itself.

      Does this make the party a brand? Perhaps not. But it can help party officials understand the value of those symbols, how to cultivate those relationships, encourage those feelings of loyalty, and to protect what makes those symbols important.

      What’s more, it’s important tactically and for long-term planning. Brand building is a long-term activity. The short-term behaviour of many of Labor’s officials and leaders is deeply damaging to the long-term prospects of the party.

      Treating Labor’s “brand” as simply the logo, is the wrong way to do things.

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