By Dr Chris Chapleo, Senior Lecturer in Marketing
When many people think of brands and branding, the first thing that comes to mind are consumer products such as Coca Cola or Mercedes, but the truth is that branding is just as relevant to many other aspects of life, and right now is we are in the midst of a storm of political party branding.
When undertaken well, branding differentiates a product or service clearly, succinctly and in a way that is meaningful and resonates with people; it allows your target market to understand what you stand for, and how you are different (and hopefully better?) than other similar offerings. These principles make sense in many areas of life, and have been fully embraced by the modern political party. This wasn’t always the case however, although the rise of UK political branding has its roots over thirty years ago.
Branding as a recognised business discipline dates back to earlier last century in the United States, where it arose to add value to the increasing use of trademarks, amid the advent of mass consumer goods. As marketing became more integral to organisations, its principles became adopted by sectors such as charities and education, as well as political parties. The United States was where political branding had its roots, and it has always been the driving force behind slick political branding as we know it.
The UK, however, hasn’t been too slow to play catch up; arguably a defining moment was the Conservatives’ use of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1979 and the iconic ‘Labour isn’t Working’ poster of that successful campaign that helped brand the Conservatives as the party of employment. In terms of really embracing branding that succinctly packages and communicates what a party and its leader stand for - and communicating it in a way that people buy into - Tony Blair’s New Labour victory of 1997 took the art to a new level. Whatever your leanings the sophisticated use of aspects of branding principles by New Labour cannot be denied. The Conservative party learned from this and has sought to modernise its brand, but all political policies are now au fait with the techniques of branding.
So what of this forthcoming election? Everyone has their opinions but in a time where there is limited real divergence between many policies, parties are keen to try and differentiate through their brands. This is evident through the logos and straplines on display behind speakers at any public occasion. However, these are really the tip of the iceberg and it is the part of the iceberg below the water – what you stand for and the associations people make – where the real work of branding goes on. The challenge is not just building associations for the party, as the personal brand of the party leader is important and often inseparable from the party. Boris Johnson, for example, undoubtedly has a strong personal brand and that may be an asset for the Conservatives, or symptomatic of all you dislike about them, depending upon your viewpoint!
The big branding stories to watch in this election include some great examples: the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg may well have damaged their brand through several years of coalition distilling their core brand values, the personal brand of Ed Miliband may be a problematic one to sell to many people and will give New Labour a challenge, and whether the rise of the UKIP brand translates to many votes remains to be seen?
For those who see it as superficial, is there a strong argument for branding? I believe there is.
We live in an information-overloaded world where we are bombarded with far too much data to fully process and understand. Good branding cuts through and offers shorthand that we can understand quickly and differentiate in our minds. The problem arises when people get a wrong or a superficial message. The fact is that a brand with any longevity and credibility must be based upon truth or it will be quickly found out. Good brands build trust based upon a reality, but once that trust has been damaged it is very hard to quickly recover it.
Of course there is a tendency to focus on the ‘style over substance’ aspect of some political branding, and this is a valid criticism. Done well, branding can help us to make our choices, and to encourage those who may not otherwise do so to vote. Whatever our view, there seems little doubt that branding is here to stay as part of modern politics.