Time for some sharp, shrewd political branding

by Richard Ware

24th April 2017

Having strong policies isn’t enough; it’s how you communicate them and engage with the voters. There are clear branding and comms lessons to be learned from recent campaigns including the EU Referendum and the 2015 General Election.

Here, Rich Ware tells the challenging parties to sharpen up their branding tools or risk being forgotten.

The definition of ‘snap’ is to ‘break suddenly and completely, typically with a sharp cracking sound,’ and with May’s announcement comes the cracking, groaning sound of the nation’s fault lines – so recently opened in all their vitriolic rawness – exposed once again to dominate national conversation.

Maybe we all felt a bit like Brenda from Bristol, but the political junkies, communications and media professionals among us can’t help but feel excitement at all the ins and outs, debate bloodbaths and fake news scandals ahead.

Either way, the battle lines are drawn and there’s precious little time for the challenging parties to get their acts together, let alone their campaigns. Whether you’re appealing to the ‘electorate’ or the ‘consumer,’ everyone is selling a brand.

Here’s how to get bought.

Visuals matter

We live in a visual world, bombarded with images through our screens and in print. We increasingly communicate in visual forms, so – while it may seem superficial – the question could well be: what will the winning brand look like?

Brexit Britain

Brexit will be a key campaigning issue and the visual branding of Brexit Britain will be an important part of communications. It is clear what Brexit Britain looks like from the Brexiteers’ perspective; from the Union Jack flag to the return of the old ‘British’ passport (remember those?). But what does the open, welcoming ‘soft Brexit’ lobby or even that of the staunch Remainers (holding out hope for a reversal of the EU referendum) look like?

The British passport is an interesting example of how campaigners can fixate on a visual cue. Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, chairman of the Flags and Heraldry Committee, commenting in the Daily Express, said: “It’s a matter of identity. Having the pink European passports has been a source of humiliation.”

How we look, how we vote

The face of Brexit used to be Nigel Farage. For this election it is our Prime Minister, Theresa May—and her team knows it.

Look at her near-physical transformation from quirky librarian to stern headmistress, then to battle-ready War Mother of Brexit Britain vowing to ‘CRUSH THE SABOTEURS,’ (see typically-restrained Daily Mail headline below).

Now, I rankle at the media focus on May’s visual brand, from her leopard print kitten heels to her leather trousers, and I balked at the Daily Mail’s (no doubt intentionally) offensive May/Sturgeon ‘Legxit’ front page lead. But, listening to The Times’ political correspondent Rachel Sylvester, on the Red Box political podcast, provides an interesting reassessment of May’s own role in the scrutiny of her image.

If Sylvester’s source is to be believed, May’s heels became part of her brand only after the media focused on them at the Tory conference. It is part of her carefully constructed appearance just as much as she has controlled what journalists have been able to interview her about. The kitten heels were supposed to be her ‘humanising element’, Sylvester says, but – as political cartoonists show her pinning opponents down by them – they have become her ‘suit of armour rather than a chink in the armour’.

She has hardened, donned darker tones in her clothing. This is clearly serious business.

Look and act the part

In the past, we wanted leaders that we felt emotionally connected with, and who enlisted our empathy. Now, we are in a time of economic and societal uncertainty, and the British public may be looking instead for a firm and authoritative hand on the tiller.

How will Corbyn and Farron fare in this visual regard? And the Greens? Not wanting to be overtly superficial, but the leaders need to look the part as much as talk it.

Whether it has been the successful image of pint-in-hand Farage or the failure of Ed Miliband’s two-tonne EdStone, the past has shown that the parties will no doubt be looking for confident visual brand imagery for the public to rally behind.

The power of the spoken word

The sound bite, the slogan, the call-to-arms – cannot be under-estimated in today’s world of memes and tweets, click-bait headlines and rolling news clips on 24-hour TV.

I wrote (passionately) in June last year about the way that the Leave campaign had the upper hand on strong messaging in the EU Referendum, and these lessons will be heeded by all parties. The Leave campaign delivered the simple and brilliant ‘Take back control’. Just like ‘Make America great again’. Nationalist, proactive, punchy.

In response to Tory policies on education, welfare, the NHS and housing, Corbyn has come out fighting in the last few weeks on…housing, education and the NHS. But the snap election throws this positive narrative into disarray: he’ll now be judged in the space of a month on everything that he says, and on all that he has previously said and (tellingly) not said.

The sound bites of the past, or lack thereof, can haunt politicians. Jeremy Corbyn will no doubt be damned by his silence on the key issue of the EU Referendum, and Labour is stuck on a loop of clarifying his statements (not a great starting point), most recently over TridentChannel 4’s Cathy Newman grilled Tim Fallon on the eve of the snap election announcement, asking him whether he still agreed with his previous statement on homosexuality that “we are all sinners”. He’s floundered, first by refusing to answer, then taking a position, and now the media and political pundits won’t let it go as he struggles to articulate where he really stands.

Be clear, concise and take part

Any political leader, or party brand, must be clear and vocal on where they stand on the key issues.

The TV debates are a personality parade, and one that we relish. But they are also a test of the party leaders’ mettle under pressure. The verbal sparring can unearth flaws in arguments and reveal true characters. Whether or not this affects the voting intentions of the public is itself up for debate. Nigel Farage espoused some pretty odious statements during the last election debates, but they were part of his strategy, part of his brand to offend and stand out.

At the time of writing Theresa May has refused to take part, in a move uncomfortably reminiscent of David Cameron’s flip-flopping over TV debates in the 2015 General Election. Jeremy Corbyn has criticised her, saying it is “what democracy needs and the British people deserve,” while Farron has accused May of “running scared”. The truth is: she is much smarter than ‘running scared’; it is all part of her tightly-controlled image and her management of the conversation. Communications professionals have called it strategically sound in PR Week.

But public debate has been, from the foundations of democracy in the ancient world, a key platform for political figures to curry favour with the masses, to ridicule opponents and make their key arguments known.

I can’t see how it will reflect well on May to continue refusing to take part. It is a tradition of our country’s electoral experience and, more than that, the British public do love baying for blood.

It’s going to be an interesting month.

Start your engines, politicos, and may the best brand win.