Building political brand equity

An interesting article in the European Journal of Marketing by Australian academics Marcus Phipps, Jan Brace-Govan and Colin Jevons goes into how political brand equity is created through the engagement and involvement of highly politically aware voters.

The key finding of the research is that brand advocates are essential for the major parties.

In an environment of reduced differentiation of political offerings to the electoral marketplace it is important for politicians and the political party to make early decisions about which aspect of this brand duality best serves individual careers and the party. Key to this decision is the opinion-leading role of politically aware consumers.

This article dovetails neatly into my earlier article in Challenge Magazine on using digital campaigning for real-world impact. In that article, I argued that activating the engaged supporters of a party was the most effective way to deliver an effective online campaign:

As we are all exposed to more and more advertising messages – whether political or commercial – people are turning to friends and family online to engage in public speech and to facilitate each other to take political action. Traditional political advertising is a weak force that is more like a fine mist than a concentrated stream. Motivating the committed simply outperforms persuading the disengaged every time. Organisations that can foster the deep involvement of members and supporters do better than those who don’t.

Motivating the committed is how elections can be won; online action begets offline action (it’s called the commitment and consistency principle). Labor’s brand advocates don’t just like things on Facebook. They are more likely to get active and inspire their apathetic and apolitical friends and family offline, in the real world.

Underlying this reality is the fact that the majority of voters simply cannot tell the difference between the two major parties.

O’Cass (2003) explored the nature of the political product during a formal campaign period, finding that there were six key aspects to the political product from a party perspective: the political party, policies, leader, candidate, issues, and services. He showed that consumers could not separate these six aspects when it came to choosing a political product offering at election time.

Why is this? The cynical media explanation is that Labor and the Liberal Party have adopted the same policies. This is incorrect. It is the natural result of intense competition between the two major political brands, where both try to claim parity on major policy areas.

Voters consider issues like security and the economy important, so both parties claim economic responsibility and strong security policies; voters want good hospitals and high quality schools, so both parties claim to increase funding for health and education; voters want action on climate change, so both parties will reduce carbon emissions by 5 percent. Apart from a few totemic categories (e.g. workers rights), the Liberals claim parity on Labor issues, and Labor does likewise for Liberal issues.

This is simply how competition in a mature market occurs — brands claim differentiation on certain areas and party on their competing brand’s differentiated areas. This is how Tony Abbott can say with a straight face that the Liberal Party have a policy on climate change.

In my view, Labor’s brand is in crisis. Considering the political product’s key aspects (party, policies, leader, candidate, issues and services), our leaders and policies have serious legitimacy issues (caused by media speculation) and our party is suffering substantially due to lack of reform and renewal.

Most voters never meet candidates and never read policy platforms:

[voters] expect the quality of products under the same brand name to be correlated, meaning that consumers rely heavily on the brand of the supplier. The supplier’s brand image, which in a politician’s case is that of the political party, is the strongest determinant of a consumer’s expectation of service. This image exists until consumers have a chance to update their perceptions through experience.

The most worrying aspect about this situation is the damaging effect on Labor’s brand, represented by the woeful polling numbers. The brand equity (which in commercial terms is represented by a price premium) is “the sacrifice of time and thepsychic cost of supporting and being seen to support a politician not of one’s normallypreferred party”. (The article goes through eight elements of political brand equity, but for purposes here time and support are the main indicators.)

The research article goes through their two case-studies of two electorates (Labor and Liberal). Briefly, it found that Labor MPs interacted significantly more with their communities to build relationships with local groups; the Liberal MPs relied more on their “corporate” brand image.

Politicians built community brand equity through their interactions with community groups in their electorates. Community groups were shown to actively pursue politiciansto gain their support and were also involved in communicating the politician’s brand. The importance of portraying their own values and opinions, and emphasising the importance of local issues over party politics, was considered important by both politicians. However, the influence of community equity was best illustrated in the Fernsborough electorate,where Thompson [a Labor MP] was able to counter the long standing historical relationship of that electorate with the rival political party and the potentially negative effect of his party’scorporate brand. In this case, there was a strong focus on the person, not the political party.

The Labor Party apparatus can also learn from this — the party officials and branches can be an important in building those links and repair the Labor brand. Indeed, the Labor brand is in such dire straights that many of the people interviewed for this research paper noted that they cared more for the politician than the party (Thompson held Fernsborough despite the Labor brand, not because of it). This is fine for those groups — and we should encourage strong, active candidates and MPs — but when most people vote for the party, not the candidate, it is a worrying situation.

Here’s the take away:

high involvement consumers from the community groups participated in brand advocacy and helped develop community brand equity for politicians.

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