Branding in politics has always been around. The Nazi Party, New Labour (in the UK), and the Romans all used a brand, image, or logo, and they used branding tools to communicate particular values, and in some cases to say to both the “in group” that they belonged, and the “out-group” that they didn’t belong (and, perhaps, to be fearful).
In politics, from a recent history perspective, branding and marketing was mostly used to reinforce and communicate fundamental points of difference – so, for example, in Australia, you either you believed in the worker, and the collective, or you believed in liberal values, and perhaps the primacy of the individual.
Now, though, we are beginning to see, what you might call, “product” similarity amongst the major parties, just as in the consumer goods area; policy is converging and the key differences between the major political parties in Australia, as in much of the western world, are attitudinal, rather than substantial or policy based. So what the parties, the leaders, and even ministers and shadow ministers (think of Peter Garrett and the environment), are trying to build on are the emotions, attitudes, and values that they might represent to Australia.
Like it or not, politicians and their parties, are capitalising on the current consumerism zeitgeist. As the US and Australian elections (and others around the world) approach, watch how branding becomes a huge part of the campaigns. And if any politicians claim that there is too much marketing going on, you can tell them that they brought it on themselves.
In Australia, the two major parties – the Liberal Party, and the Australian Labour Party – both have leaders who are branding themselves for the voters. John Howard, the current PM, has branded himself as stable, sensible, and trustworthy. Someone who you can rely on to keep you safe (and warm). Kevin Rudd, the challenger, is also branding himself as trustworthy, sensible, and reliable, but is also working on differentiating his brand from Howard, as new blood. He is also branding himself (better than Howard), as a thinker, an innovator, and someone who doesn’t just want to hold on to power for the sake of it. What is also interesting, is that Kevin Rudd’s brand has an advantage, in that we only need to “imagine” what Kevin Rudd stands for (and this is related to our political preferences – not necessarily party political), whereas we already “know” what John Howard stands for.
You can also see that Howard is trying to extend his brand – his recent conversion to the cause of global warming (climate change is part of the branding strategy), is part of his (marketing managers) desire to reinvent his brand identity in preparation for the upcoming election. He might just be successful in convincing enough people that he has changed – remember the ALP has to win something like 15 seats to take government. John Howard only has to convince enough voters in enough electorates to hold on to power. And who is to say that those who might vote Howard out, actually care about the complexity of the environment. Most of us only start to take notice if it has a direct impact on our lives.
But there is one area where John Howard’s brand is taking a beating. Many Australians perceive (whether it’s true or not), that John Howard simply wants to hold on to power for the sake of it, rather than offering anything new to the electorate. The party is desperately trying to take control of the agenda, but it might be the case that Rudd has created his own momentum, and if you understand the reverse mere exposure effect, you will see that the more the electorate perceives that Rudd is going to be the next PM, the more likely it is that they will vote for him (and funnily enough, his party). To keep it in perspective though, who takes government will be determined by a very small proportion of the electorate.
You also need to think about the brand of the parties… The key question on the lips of all Australians is:
What does the Liberal party stand for (as opposed to John Howard), other than staying in power? What about the ALP? And where do minor parties, such as the Greens and Democrats fit in?
More in the coming weeks.
And as we get closer to the US primaries, we can see the branding activity firing up. I’ll be posting on the political brands and marketing of the presidential candidates in the US over the coming weeks and months too.