Political brands: who gets your vote?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the final leaders’ debate in 2010. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

As the general election looms, marketing experts assess the political parties for brand strength and relevance

Political campaigning for the 2015 general election has not exactly been a masterclass in marketing. Some efforts, such as the Conservative’s first election poster, which showcased a German road, and Labour’s pink bus tour to court female voters, have even been met with widespread derision.

Fortunately for the two main parties, the odd communications misfire is unlikely to do long-term damage to their brands.

The upcoming leaders’ debates may be a different matter. “Politicians are mistresses and masters of the fuck-up and are good at dealing with it practically and emotionally,” says Saatchi Saatchi director of strategy Richard Huntington. “What’s going to be more interesting is when they start squaring up to each other.”

Brands in crisis?
Huntington views Labour and the Conservatives as “the Coke and Pepsi” of the political world. He notes that in terms of brand strength, it’s difficult to distinguish them. They are the only parties with the qualities of a powerful brand: namely authenticity, product, purpose, meaning and the ability to live richly in people’s minds, he says. But their hold over the electorate has clearly waned.

The Tories did have a post-budget fillip and, on 28 March, stood neck and neck with Labour as both headed into the five and a half week general election campaign. But the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour all began their campaigns with their all-time lowest combined polling scores. “They are at a low watermark because fewer people are buying into or understanding the role they are trying to play,” Huntingdon says.

Marketing experts are pointing to a brand crisis in the political sphere. Andrew Marsden, a brand consultant and former marketing director for soft drinks brand Britvic, believes the main parties lack focus. “The brand essence is becoming much more diluted at a time when the world is far more structurally complex,” he says. “There are a lot of people caught in the mushy middle and that’s a very dangerous place for brands to be.”

Parallels are drawn with supermarkets, as established names such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s lose share to the likes of Aldi and Lidl. Laurence Green, co-founder of advertising agency 101, says that Labour, like Tesco, is “lurching back to its value roots” while the Liberal Democrats, like Morrisons, are “great missed opportunities” in British politics and retail. “The Conservative party is trying to be Sainsbury’s, but too often looks like Waitrose, and sometimes even Fortnum’s,” he adds. “They’re all guilty of the greatest retail marketing folly of all: staring at one another rather than focusing on the consumer.”

All the while, parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP), Green party and Ukip are making headway. Richard Exon, co-founder of ad agency Joint, says: “The old certainties are dying and the new reality is you can build a brand more quickly without market share.”

The Conservatives
The obvious brand challenge for the Conservative party is to counteract its elitist image and connect with the wider electorate. “They’ve suffered from the fact that their leadership is made up of ex-Eton, ex-Bullingdon, ex-Oxbridge,” says Juliet Haygarth, chief executive at ad agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay.

The Tories could use their reputation for financial probity to help reinforce brand strength, but a clear vision for the party is getting lost in a stream of disjointed messaging. “Everyone’s finding very small issues to highlight,” Marsden says. “There’s no overriding view and vision-setting. In our language [marketing], there’s no genuine consumer promise.”

Labour
Labour comes in for an equal amount of flak from marketing experts for concentrating on smaller issues, such as tax avoidance, at the expense of an overarching vision. Though Haygarth believes its efforts to target different audiences deserve some praise: “They are making a better fist of trying to have a conversation with various important groups in society.”

Saatchi Saatchi’s Huntingdon, who worked on the Labour campaign during the previous election, sees both Labour and the Conservatives as having lost their way as brands: “They have a very potent reason to exist and both of them have forgotten what that is in their scramble for the middle ground.” Ed Miliband and David Cameron are also deemed relatively weak brand custodians. “Both are leaders of their parties, not really of the country,” he says.

Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats appear to have sacrificed the integrity of their challenger position by serving in the collation, says Joint’s Exon. “Are they the smallest of the main parties or the biggest of the challenger brands? That’s their particular conundrum,” he says. Huntington calls the party a “non-brand” – adding that Nick Clegg has become a “lightning rod for everything that’s wrong with the government”.

The Green party, Ukip, SNP and Plaid Cymru
The smaller parties have benefited from being specialists competing against generalists, Exon says. But he also warns: “There’s a limited market for specialist brands.”

Ukip, meanwhile, appeals to the “baser instincts” of the population and is “anti a lot of things without coherence about what the future is going to look like,” Marsden says.

The SNP, meanwhile, has become “almost like the official opposition” according to Huntingdon. Devo max marks a landscape change for political brands, Marsden says: “We’re at a very interesting watershed election. This will clarify a lot about the strength of the political parties.”

Huntington believes the Green party is the only one that has framed what its brand is about. But others are not so convinced. “These days everybody’s concerned about the health of the planet, so it’s no longer a single interest thing … I don’t think they have a very well-articulated case,” says Marsden.

Lessons for marketers?
“We fell over ourselves to learn lessons from New Labour and similarly from Obama in 2008,” says Huntington. “But right now I don’t think there’s much to learn from political parties.” The dilution of the party brands reinforces key lessons in brand building because it shows the importance of having a clear brand essence and clear and well-articulated values, Marsden says.

Jeff Dodds, chief executive at Tele2 Netherlands and former chief marketing officer for Virgin Media, believes political brands have at least one advantage over commercial ones – their marketing is entirely measurable. He says: “On 7 May they get to see if they have done a good job or not – a marketer’s dream, or nightmare, depending on your inclination.”
* Anne Cassidy

Source: The Guardian

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