Political movements try – and fail – to be brands
It’s party conference season here in the UK. I have never been to one of these gatherings and I hope never to have to go to one. I’m not even sure what they are for – they’re a mixture of plotting, lobbying, boozing, rabble rousing. But to what end I know not, and I’m not alone.
Of late they seem to have been a platform for reviving or relaunching the “brand” – with mixed results at best, and car crash moments aplenty.
Promises, promises – the bigger the better
Political movements make for not very good brands. The first thing you are taught in brand school is that “a brand” is something like “a promise delivered” – the idea that a good brand not only signals what you should expect from it but crucially delivers against that expectation. A ‘good’ brand should do what it says on the tin, not just say it.
But political brands err heavily towards promises – focusing on the rhetoric rather then the delivery. Saying not doing.
Nowadays it seems that the bigger, the bolder, the wilder the promise the more powerful a political brand becomes. Everywhere you look there are big bold promises being made. And what’s noticeable is that the people who like the promise – whether Brexit-voting leavers, remainiacs, Trump’s MAGA fans, Duterte’s supporters, and soon AMLO’s fan base – don’t and won’t care too much if there’s any delivery against that promise. What they like is that someone is saying stuff they like, that reinforces their world view. Delivery – the foundational pillar of ‘what makes a good brand’ – doesn’t seem to matter much in the political world.
Meanwhile, some brands are trying to become political movements
And now something odd is happening in brand land. Brands – not all but a lot – have stopped making specific promises that they can deliver and instead have started talking more about their underlying ideology.
Some brands are clearly in the ‘political’ sphere – Patagonia for example with its activism, or Nike with the Kaepernick ad.
Others are not so much espousing their politics so much as their big ideal. Their purpose. What they exist for. Which is fine – but only if a) it’s true and b) they’re actually doing it. In brand world – unlike politics world – delivery really counts.
It’s undoubtedly a good thing that businesses are thinking about their purpose – and designing their organisations to deliver a greater good into the world.
But “brand purpose marketing” is not a good thing. Communicating purpose is much less important, and comes way after, delivering against that purpose. Agencies need to take much more care over what they advise their clients – there’s a very small distance between admirable purpose and overblown hyperbole.
That distance doesn’t matter in politics – in fact maybe the bigger the hyperbole the stronger the political identity – but it does matter in the real world.
Political and purpose brands are becoming hard to distinguish:
Make America Great Again
We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion
Unleash a more powerful you
For the many not the few
We make the future real
(* for the culprits)
These big aspirational statements don’t pass, can’t pass – don’t need to pass – any kind of delivery test. Uber does amazing things, but the “ignite opportunity” language is at least three notches of hype too much for a techy cab company. (And “world in motion” is a phrase that cannot be retrieved from New Order). VW is not engaged in some kind of time travel – it’s making cars with different types of propulsion systems. This is brand hyperbole 101 and it’s not great. It’s metaphorical lipstick.
Meantime proper brands are suffering
Spare a thought for the brands still plugging away to deliver their promises. John Lewis took a 99% drop in profits by trying to stick to its “never knowingly undersold” promise. How much easier, more profitable could it have been to declare all lower pricing to be fake news and to stick to its margins?
Political brands fail as brands
There’s a big difference between brands that operate in the real world and need to engage customers, and political brands that need votes at set piece occasions. They’re very different – operate differently. Promises get votes. Delivery gets customers.
Look at political parties and movements as if they were real brands and they fail completely.
Take the UK Conservative Party for example:
- losing members not winning them. In the 50’s the party had 3m or so members, now it has 124,000
- failure to engage that membership. The party membership holds different, more extreme views, than the party on the defining issues of recent times such as Brexit, the death penalty, gay marriage. They haven’t taken their own members with them.
- they have no product. This year there will be no Queen’s Speech because the Government doesn’t have any policies to put into legislation. Brexit and infighting have crowded out any room for the actual business of governing.
These failures apply to pretty much any political movement anywhere – they lack appeal, they fail to engage, they don’t deliver anything. If they were *real* brands they’d have gone out of business a long time ago. Collectively in the UK fewer than 2% of eligible voters belong to any political party at all. The National Trust – with nearing 5m members – has almost 4m more than all the parties put together. That’s a failure for the whole category.
Reconnecting promises and delivery
Political brands fail as brands because (imo) they disconnect the hype from delivery. ‘Real’ brands that start to ape political brands need to take care they don’t do the same.
Maybe it’s time for everyone to take a step back:
- political movements have much to gain from making the gap between delivery and promise smaller – collectively they need to find ways to engage a much broader range of people and stop making hyped up promises to their dwindling fan base. They need to become relevant.
- brands that have some kind of ideology at their core risk creating too big a gap between promise and delivery – there’s too much hype and overblown “purpose” marketing. They risk becoming irrelevant.
- and the brand industry needs to stop peddling “purpose” as a marketing thing and start helping businesses hard wire it into the operating system.
Then we’d all be better off – less hype and more progress.
(*In order: Trump, Uber, Apple, UK Labour, VW, UK Tories)