There is no better teacher in the art of branding than politics, and there is no better time to observe this than during election time – especially during the seven-cornered fight of the United Kingdom election. The parties have to communicate their brand values and differentiate in a crowded field. They have to deal with competing claims, criticisms and attacks on their credibility to the extent that voters don't know who to believe anymore. Worse, voters have developed a mindset that they won't get what they bargained for, and more than one leader has had to explain why they broke promises made in the last election. Frankly, if brands behaved the way politicians do, they would never secure any customers.
Yet, elections are always won by someone, and this is precisely what makes them so interesting to study. If you are in branding, and it is your job to defend your brand, what can you learn from the way politicians this the UK election communicate?
Let's take two interviews at the opposite end of the spectrum. Not the political spectrum, but the "ability to communicate" spectrum. First, the bottom end.
The leader of the Greens, Natalie Bennett, possibly had the worst radio interview of her campaign, in which she was trying to explain her party's plan to build 500,000 homes for people who can't afford one.
Moderator: The cost of 500,000 homes, let's start with that. How much would that be?
Bennett: "Right, well, that's, erm... you've got a total cost... erm... that we're... that will be spelt out in our manifesto.
Moderator: So you don't know?
Bennett: No, well, err.
Moderator: You don't, ok. So you don't know how much those homes are going to cost, but the way it's going to be funded is mortgage relief from private landlords. How much is that worth?
Bennett: Right, well what we're looking at with the figures here. Erm, what we need to do is actually... uh......... we're looking at a total spend of £2.7... billion.
Moderator: 500,000 homes, £2.7 billion? What are they made of, plywood?
And it just got worse from there (full transcript and audio here: http://www.lbc.co.uk/when-natalie-bennett-got-brain-fade-live-on-lbc-105449). Bennett later apologised for her performance on Twitter.
The best performer, in my view, was Danny Robertson from the Liberal Democrats. His post-debate interview on the BBC was so full of obfuscation and half-truths that it's remarkable no one has called him out on it. But he delivered it so smoothly that it's hard not to believe him (you can watch the video for yourself here: http://m.bbc.com/news/election-2015-32328664)
In his opening sentence, he directly addresses his target audience, casting his net as widely as possible: “I think if you’re a moderate centre-ground voter watching that debate you would have come away pretty alarmed because there was no one there offering a sensible plan on the economy, there was no one there offering a balanced centre ground idea, and given that neither the Tories nor the Labour Party can win an outright majority the key issue for a lot of voters is who’s going to be holding the balance of power."
He goes on:
"And on the evidence of tonight the idea of a Tory coalition with UKIP, or a Labour coalition with the SNP is extremely alarming."
Never mind the fact that Ed Miliband could not have been more clear that he was not going to do a coalition deal with the Scottish National Party (an alliance would "not happen"), and the Conservative Chief Whip Michael Gove said "nein danke" when asked whether he was going to do a deal with UKIP.
Back to Robertson: "…and that’s why I think people need to have the Liberal Democrats to make sure that we can have a balanced, sensible, centre ground policy, a strong economy and a fair society. You didn’t hear that from any of the leaders speaking tonight."
But we certainly heard it from Robertson. Three times for the word "balanced", twice for the word "sensible".
The term "strong economy" comes up for the first time.
After the next question, Robertson carefully acknowledges the reporter's question ("So when you say no one there who offered a balanced, responsible look at the economy, does that rule out your being able to work with Labour…?") but doesn't answer it: Well, what was really striking tonight was that Ed Miliband was challenged to explain, where would he find savings, how would he pay for some of his promises. He didn’t even bother to make an excuse of trying to answer that question."
Then on to his key messages: "Look, I think this is why you need the Liberal Democrats in the next parliament in strong numbers because if you have a Labour Party you need the Liberal Democrats to make sure that we have a plan that is responsible to sort out the economic problems of this country, that we’ve made a good job of in this government."
There's that word "strong" a second time, and he managed to get his brand name – "Liberal Democrats" – twice into the same sentence.
He wraps the answer with:
"Again and again it makes the argument for, if you want a responsible, balanced strong coalition government. The only way to get it is the Liberal Democrats."
Chalk up another one for "balanced", "strong" and "Liberal Democrats".
He wraps this three minute interview with more mentions of balance, strong economy and fairness: "we can keep to a balanced plan. But the only way to keep to a strong economy and a fair society, the only way to make sure everyone in this country has the opportunity to get on is to make sure that there are Liberal Democrats involved in the government of the country in the future."
All up that makes 6 scores for "balance", 4 for "strong/strong economy" and 3 for "fair/fairness".
And most importantly from his branding perspective, the name “Liberal Democrats” came up 5 times.
So, what can brand managers take away from this?
Consistency of message is an obvious one. Being prepared and substantiating your messages is another.
But so is having strong spokespeople who are able to deliver these. For all the hard work of the brand guardians, sometimes the CEO and other spokespeople are the worst offenders. None of this is to say that CEOs should come across as salesy. You know that the CEO must be credible. But many CEOs in Singapore are uncomfortable in any media appearance, especially in front of a camera. They prefer to shun the spotlight, even when their company has an important, positive announcement to make.
But in a day and age when everyone with a smartphone is a potential reporter, and when the competition among brands is intense, the idea that senior executives can hang back are over. There is even more stake than the UK election: the reputation and credibility of your company.