Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why brands, and branding, have no place in politics

A correspondent took Jason Cowley, editor of The New Statesman, to task this week, for his use of the phrase "Labour's brand is still strong." He objected not to the statement's accuracy (although that is, following the past few months, highly dubious), but to the use of the term brand. "Political parties," he wrote, "used to have principles, not brands."

My initial reaction was a hostile one - that the sentiment came from the outdated (and discredited) brand-as-logo school of thought. Surely the more holistic, modern definition of branding - a clear, concise and authentic distillation of the values, behaviours and experience provided by an organisation - is exactly what today's parties need, to re-engage and inspire apathetic voters who think "they're all the same." Mind you, take my own favourite definition of a brand - "a promise, kept"  and it certainly doesn't seem appropriate to our politicians - eh, Mr Clegg?

Which party is currently hogging the limelight, the headlines and (in some places) the votes? It's UKIP, the only one that has succeeded in striking a simple, "authentic" tone, and possibly the only one that can be called a strong brand.

Therein lies the rub. If Brand UKIP's success can be put down to the simplicity of its brand and message, is that really an example other parties should follow? Some might say yes, many brand experts among them (particularly, the cynic in me says, if there's money to be made).

I say no.

Branding is about simplicity and clarity, and politics is neither simple, nor clear. Moreover, the electorate is so complex, and diverse, that trying to come up with simple, concise messaging with universal appeal is an exercise in futility. It explains why we end up with such vague and homogeneous promises from all the parties, appealing to universal desires like fairness, meritocracy and "choice" that they can neither substantiate, nor deliver. As the hierarchy of needs shows, we largely share the same basic drivers. The parties aim to appeal to those, without telling us how they might approach their fulfilment. Benefits, not features, the marketers say. But in politics, features do matter.

So, this is an appeal to brand practitioners to stay away from the politicians, and to the politicians to stop trying to be brands.

To paraphrase one of the more famous examples of political marketing: branding isn't working.