Can countries or political parties really be treated and managed as brands? Do they have identities that we can get to know, connect with and even reward with devotion? The knee-jerk reaction is yes, of course – a political party is a group of likeminded people with shared goals and ambitions and a common purpose, heading broadly in the same direction – a branding expert’s dream!
Sounds good, and in line with conventional corporate reputation management thinking…until you turn on the forensic head torch. Let’s start with a reminder of the haiku-simple definition of a brand: ‘the guarantee of a consistent customer experience of a product, service or organisation’.
Now shine the light on some of the most seismic moments in recent UK and US history. The state of Britain following its decision to leave the European Union. The immediate resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. The US Republican Party nominating Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. The Democrats nearly torn asunder by the gulf between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The British Labour Party on the point of fundamental fracture over its parliamentary party’s rejection of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
These moments represent a dramatic reversal of the normal way in which brands attract and engage followers and ambassadors. Typical brand strategy is to identify the common needs and values of your target audience, then consistently match or exceed those aspirations. What seems to be happening at the moment is that leaders around the world are seizing on the things that divide us, and building communities of fear.
Looking at the communication strategies behind Trump and Brexit in more detail, both campaigns featured the idea of finding common cause with large numbers of constituents by scratching at scars and exposing negative emotions and experiences: “…if you’re angry, vote for me; if you’re frightened, I’m your man….”
In both campaigns, the strategy has been to toss in as many negative trigger-points as possible – fear of immigration, unemployment, globalisation, loss of sovereignty, crime, insecurity – and then claim that these universal concerns can all be solved with a tick in the ballot box. By scatter-gunning the population with the general artillery of fear and anger, you are likely to find a point of connection with just about every sentient human being.
So you’ve connected with millions of people by appealing to multiple triggers of concern – can you now build the necessary levels of engagement and endorsement? That requires the guarantees of consistent experience that are at the heart of great brands. This is where it gets tricky for countries and political parties. If your core strategy is to couple relentlessly negative messaging with the radical unpredictability that has been the hallmark of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, what are the unifying roots that will keep your new supporters connected? Where is the consistency of purpose, direction and values? The rejection of previous values does not become a unifying new value in its own right, but a guarantee of continued future discontinuity.
The next few years in the unfolding stories of the US, the UK and countless other countries around the world will be fascinating as these tensions play out. From the perspective of corporate brand-building and reputation management for countries and political parties, the switch to messaging that focuses on what can be created rather than what should be destroyed cannot come fast enough.