Ten ways the parties can repair their brands

Political parties in the UK are historically unpopular, with declining membership, distrust of politicians and cyncism towards politics.  Robert Jones from the Norwich Business School suggests 10 ways in which they can repair their brands.

Of the ten most hated brands in Britain, four are political parties, according to recent research. So there’s a bit of a problem here.

And it matters when brands, like it or not, are so powerful in contemporary culture – a topic we cover in depth in UEA’s unique postgrad course on brand leadership. And it matters when political parties are the organisations that enable people to take part in democracy.

So what do we do?

Over the last couple of years, we’ve done three pieces of research at Wolff Olins, the brand consultancy where I work, which point to some answers.

First, successful brands are behaving differently. They aim not to play the game, but to change it. They aim not so much to persuade people to buy as enlist them into a cause. They’re less like McDonald’s, more like Wikipedia. They don’t pander to everyone, but they stand for something: and indeed some, like HBO, aim to polarise opinion rather seek universal appeal. They’re not obsessed with fighting their rivals: as Google’s Eric Schmidt says, ‘If you focus on your competition, you will never deliver anything truly innovative’. Many of them enable people not just to consume things, but also to do things: for example, YouTube enabling people to broadcast their own films.

Second, consumers are behaving differently. There’s a new mainstream of active, sceptical, disloyal consumers who sidestep the traditional institutions. They choose Aldi over Tesco, Ryanair over British Airways, airbnb over the hotel chains, and indeed UKIP rather than the Tories. The anti-establishment alternatives look, talk and act differently. They offer something simple, and deliver on it: it’s a fair exchange.

Third, leaders are behaving differently. According to our survey of nearly 50 CEOs worldwide, leaders are stepping away from centre-stage. As leadership expert Phil Mirvis said, ‘The company is no longer the centre of its universe – and nothing in business schools prepares leaders for this’. Not without difficulty, CEOs are becoming more modest about their organisation’s scope, and about their own powers. They’re creating less corporate corporations, with a less controlling management style, and giving employees much more freedom to bring their own ideals to work.

All three pieces of research underline the familiar fact that the age of deference is over – a long-term trend that goes back to the 1960s at least. As consumers, employees or voters, we’ll no longer do as we’re told. So what can the political parties do? Here are ten suggestions.

  1. Be worth joining. Move away from pandering to the masses, or selling a promise, towards enlisting people behind a cause.
  2. Don’t attack the other parties. Strong brands don’t (though weak ones, like the big four supermarkets, do). It turns everyone off. Be positive and optimistic.
  3. But don’t offer large and vague generalisations, about how ‘Britain’ or ‘society’ will be ‘better’ or ‘fairer’ or ‘richer’. The new mainstream doesn’t believe in grandiose statements.
  4. Instead talk about a small number of highly practical things that you’ll do, or you’ll help people do.
  5. Don’t shout, or use media that shouts, like poster advertising – as my Wolff Olins colleague Chris Moody has pointed out. Use media that forces you to listen.
  6. Embrace and work with ad hoc groups, global and local. You can’t suddenly be non-institutional, but you can work with others who are.
  7. Break away from institutional behaviour, and find a look and a voice that’s more contemporary, less formal, less pompous, less wordy, less worthy.
  8. Bring in people who aren’t career politicians, people who are outside the political mainstream.
  9. Admit the things you can’t change (like the pressures of globalisation), recognise that others are sometimes right, respect the fact that voters don’t have to agree with everything you say.
  10. Never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, or its radar for inauthenticity. Be witty, be interesting, be surprising, be outrageous even, be spontaneous, and above all be yourself.

All of this is easier to say than to do. Political parties (like most brands) have to appeal to both core supporters and a wider market, which isn’t easy. Parties have party lines, and can’t afford for their politicians to be wonderfully authentic but constantly off-message. Bigger structural change may be needed, like proportional representation, to fully change the game. But if some parties achieved some of these ten things, it would be a start.

Robert Jones is a Visiting Professor in the Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia.

This post originally featured on the Norwich Business School Blog.

Image credit:  Ashbourne College.

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