Brand new approach?

Politicians have been hitting the campaign trail hard in the run-up to this week’s General Election. Julia Martin examines whether they could have done better by learning from their commercial counterparts.

With the election now just two days away, Britain's politicians are finally coming to the end of the traditional baby-kissing whirl of pre-voting PR fever.

Tony Blair will be able to relinquish his "everyman" mugs of tea for his Downing Street fine bone china once more and Michael Howard can wheel his extended family back into the wings.

And new dad Charles Kennedy? Well, he can go back to being the slightly self-effacing party leader he had always been before his uncharacteristic show of bravado in the last few weeks proclaiming that the Liberal Democrats really do stand a chance of election victory.

Whether anyone believed him will become clear on Thursday night, but the party's first ever high-profile advertising campaign insisting it is "the real alternative" at least means people are taking notice this time round.

The different campaigning tactics of the three parties' head honchos are, of course, not left to chance. Politicians are becoming increasingly aware of the need to project the right image to the electorate.

In fact, many believe it goes even further than just image. Some marketing experts believe the time has come for the political parties to forsake the frippery of policies and to treat themselves pure and simply as brands.

Voters are, after all, customers and all the parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the raft of other hopefuls – are all ultimately products begging to be bought.

As Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of the Marketing Society, points out: "Political parties are like the ultimate services brand. At its simplest, as you get closer to an election, you have got the ultimate in consumer choice going on."

He believes marketing principles "certainly apply" to the political battle for the hearts of voters, saying: "These days there's a cross-over between marketing and politics."

It is a lesson that Labour seems to have learnt earlier than its counterparts. Robert Preston, business editor at The Sunday Telegraph, believes the party caught on to the branding concept as early as the late 1980s, when the current election coordinator, Peter Mandelson, was director of communications.

Along with Blair and Gordon Brown, Mandelson is largely credited with bringing Labour back from the brink of death to rise phoenix-like as the repackaged New Labour.

"It culminated in what, in many senses, was the rebranding of Labour," says Preston. "The naming of Labour as New Labour was hugely important to the recovery of the party and something the Tories were very jealous of. They have subsequently been rather obsessive about whether there was something they could do of a similar sort that would have the same impact."

Burkitt agrees: "It was a brilliant marketing exercise. They changed the whole brand proposition so much that they changed the whole face of the market, so it's now very difficult for anyone else to get in."

But, as Preston warns, there is far more to such a dramatic rebranding exercise than simply adopting a natty new name.

He says it is essential to back up claims of transformation with actual changes. In New Labour's case, its deliberate shift away from traditional socialism was reinforced by policy tweaks, such as its commitment not to raise top rates of taxes, he points out.

"You couldn't have done that kind of rebranding unless there were a whole series of policies. As we've seen with many companies, same product/different name doesn't work. It [change] has to be something associated with the brand for it to feel it's to be trusted."

Steve Mattey, partner at customer insight consultancy Tree, agrees. "What they do is all words at the moment – they don't alter the product. You have to start from your truth. What is it you really are?"

Mattey has worked with all three parties over recent years as an advisor on how each is perceived by the electorate and has done extensive research on the subject. He believes the job now facing the two opposition parties is to sell their "brand manifesto", expanding their appeal to attract a broad range of voters to rival Labour's wide cross-section allure.

"In whatever you're selling, you will attract people to your brand based on what your brand says. You're judged by the people you attract and those you don't attract," he says.

And while the social stereotypes of the different voting parties still exist, they will continue to act as magnets for the same old customers, he warns.

Burkitt agrees: "That's an issue in political marketing – ‘could I bear to see myself as a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat?' In some ways it can be easier to associate with the party in power. It's a strange thing – people do want to vote for the winner."

"The Lib Dems could attract more voters if they portrayed themselves as winners," Mattey concurs. "It's what they've started to do – but too late. The sandal-wearing thing is still partly true; they need to start changing that, because people don't want to be a part of it, but it's a long-term thing."

He points to the commercial world for an example of how such a long-term overhaul can eventually deliver results.

"Look at Skoda," he says. "It transformed itself from a really dead product to something that's not exactly desirable, but is on many people's consideration lists. They've done that over a long period, with considerable investment in portraying themselves in a way that will appeal to the sort of people they want to attract. That's the sort of job the Lib Dems need to do."

It is the Tories, however, who he says are in real trouble. Their "fear-based" policies appeal to a war generation of supporters who are gradually dying out, with no younger voters keen to align themselves to the "blue rinse brigade" to replace them.

"Unless they change they will die," he warns.

Preston believes: "The great problem for the Tories has been the negative legacy of Thatcher. Whatever you might think of her period in office, there's very little doubt she became very much a bogey person.

"A lot of people within the party are still passionate, wrestling with the idea of how you persuade the electorate that you're not still living in the long shadow cast by her."

His claim, that the legacy of the Iron Lady still blights the Conservatives' fortunes, supports the popular theory that it is the party leaders and other prominent personalities, rather than the policies, that ultimately win or lose votes.

Deborah Mattinson, founder of Opinion Leader Research, says she believes the top party personalities are "hugely important".

"There are interesting things going on with Blair and Howard," she says, claiming that neither can currently be described as assets for their brand.

"In 1997, Blair was the personification of everything that was desirable about the brand. Now he's less of an asset. There's been a deliberate attempt to bring in Gordon Brown, who is a much more popular figure."

And here is a valuable lesson for marketers fighting it out in the commercial world, she adds, pointing to an increase in "celebrity CEOs" and the opportunities they present.

"A lot of chief executives are as well, or better, known than politicians and can be exposed to the same strains," she claims. "Companies should be watching campaign tactics – the way politicians use media and PR, or short-circuit the media and PR to go straight to the people."

Burkitt takes a similar view. "Really top and successful business organisations need to be very PR aware and need to understand very clearly how PR can both help and damage them. You can learn from politicians the importance of being in touch with the media at any given time."

He pinpoints the recent example of BT's chief executive Ben Verwaayen taking to the Radio Four airwaves in April to celebrate the five-millionth broadband user. The critical thing was getting "the top man" from the company to act as its spokesman, he says.

"That's thinking like a politician. You've got to think like a politician all the time."

Mattinson claims another tip for businesses is politics' constant monitoring of public opinion. "What companies tend to do is a kind of annual tracking, running a campaign once a year; what political parties have learnt was that it wasn't enough to go to the electorate every four or five years. What they're doing is constantly gathering information and fine-tuning their message and I think companies should be doing that."

The Sunday Telegraph's Preston also believes there is plenty the commercial world could learn from politics, suggesting a study on the subject would be worthwhile.

"If I were at a business school, I would be quite interested in looking at the rebranding of Labour and asking if there are lessons in what they did for businesses with ailing brands."

But the learning shouldn't just go one way, Burkitt advises. "There are always lessons to be learnt from the commercial world in terms of techniques, such as becoming more sophisticated in identifying who are the key voters that they must try and influence and being efficient in targeting the right people and the right constituencies," he says.

But while there is clearly much for the two groups to learn from each other, at the end of the day it seems they still need to follow their own rules. Preston warns: "In the end, Labour overdid the branding thing. People decided they were too slick, too much about image and the so-called brand. Ultimately, there are dangers in overstating the similarities between business and politics."

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