A tale of Levis and Vegemite

When I buy jeans I don’t buy Levis. I buy jeans that fit, cost half the price and last longer. I don’t know what make they are but I do know which shop sells them.

I’m a Vegemite afficionado. When an Auckland hotel serves me up something else with “-mite” in its name, it’s almost enough to dissuade me from staying there.

Forty years ago brand loyalty in politics was of my Vegemite variety. Nowadays it is more like my choice of jeans.

In 1963 Austin Mitchell found 79 per cent of voters for Labour and 71 per cent of voters for National had never voted for any other party. Political brand loyalty was a generational hand-me-down. The brands were etched in voters’ hearts and minds.

By the late-1970s the percentage who had voted the same party through just three elections had dropped to 45 per cent. Now that figure is probably not much more than a quarter all up.

The party leaders tell the story. Bill English comes from a National-voting family. But so does Helen Clark. Richard Prebble, Peter Dunne, Jim Anderton and Laila Harre were all once Labour. Winston Peters was once National.

Brand loyalty in politics is obviously weak.

Political scientists explain this partly as a result of social diversification. The old “cleavage” between bosses and workers dividing National from Labour supporters has lost its potency.

With social diversity has come party diversity.

“Before MMP there were two and a-half brands,” says Jenny Raynish of public relations firm Raynish and Partners. “Now there is a lot of brand choice and politicians have to fight hard to get people to buy their brand.” Voters have been “convenience shopping”, trying different brands, and that has eroded the major brands.

In this cluttered marketplace the advantage lies with niche parties. “The Greens have a fabulous brand: the name says what they stand for,” Ms Raynish says.

Advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi boss Kim Wicksteed agrees: “When you have a single-minded vision or statement or proposition, it is easier [for voters] to get it.” He says the Greens’ focus on GM is a good example.

So what is a political brand? Not the logo, Mr Wicksteed says. In fact, this election Labour has pulled the 30-year-old leaning L off its billboards. Its branding this year is “red, Helen and two ticks”, Labour president Mike Williams says.

In general terms, according to David Winston, an American expert on political brands, a party brand is its perceived “benefits, image and ability to perform, as well as shared value systems”, just as a pair of sport shoes’ brand is.

So is politics just imitating the consumer market? British political scientist Catherine Needham thinks so — but that that is “a reflection of a reflection”. Consumer product brands originally mimicked political parties, she says, “offering consumers an outlet for self-expression and the opportunity to endorse a particular way of life, something that was traditionally offered by politics.” Brands are promoted as “a set of values, a philosophy, even an ideology”.

That sounds right up parties’ street. But Labour trashed its brand in the 1980s when it went in for free-market reform. And National exchanged its middle-of-the-road conservatism for radical economics in the 1990s.

Then factor in the broad audience to which a large catchall party has to pitch and you can see brand-builders’ difficulty.

Voters also avoid some brands, Ms Raynish says. Part of the Greens’ brand is morris dancing and rope sandals and a lot of people are averse to that. Many are averse to the rich-man’s brand ACT still wears despite attempts in two elections to appeal to ordinary folk — this time, with a “tax cut for every worker”.

Some in ACT are talking of “rebranding” the party after the election. In fact, behind the scenes president Catherine Judd has been doing something like that with her “liberal project”, designed to restate ACT’s free-market, individual-liberty principles.

In this campaign ACT is trying to present a less rednecked and less radical image than in 1999. It has dropped the slogan, “Values. Not politics.” (Maybe scandal-mongering by Rodney Hide has turned that into “politics, not values” in the public mind.) And it is using more yellow in its visuals and has darkened its blue to a navy, marking it out from National’s royal blue.

Mr Peters has had to recover his brand from the ashes of his disastrous choice in 1996 to exchange it for National’s in coalition. So far this campaign he has been making not a bad fist of rebuilding the old brand: he is once again unmistakably the prime defender of national cultural unity, pumping crime, the Treaty and immigration.

Mr Dunne has been busily re-branding his micro United Future party with “family values”, in recognition of his merger with the former Christian Democrats.

Ms Clark has spent nine years recovering Labour’s brand. She got partway there in opposition but in 1999 still needed a prop from the Alliance which for many voters had kept alive the old Labour brand. In office she has come to personify the Labour brand and the Alliance has faded nearly to nothing.

And what is her brand? Keeping her word, competence, authority. And a gentler society than in the 1990s. Her version: “steady, reliable, predictable, progressive.”

Bill English, on the other hand, does not yet personify the National brand, despite pushing “new leadership, new energy, new commitment, new National” line. He is centrist and new but National’s image with the public (and its policies) are still the old 1990s dry economics. The visuals lack clarity and coherence. Its unmemorable slogan (“get the future you deserve”) can be read as an admonition as much as an invitation.

But what will happen to Labour when Ms Clark moves on? Does Labour just stick another face on the billboard where hers is?

Big parties hope for something like consumers’ reflex reaction to McDonalds: want hamburger, get a big Mac. Want a government, reach for Labour (or National).

Brand loyalty is an emotional, not rational, commitment. “The heart rules the head in brand selection,” Mr Wicksteed says. Consumer product brand-builders aim to go from trade mark to “trust mark” and on to “love mark”, he says. The consumer comes to love the brand.

This is a challenge for political brand-builders, he says, because “politics has become far less of a personal commitment”.

Ms Clark may have got to the “trust mark” stage (which Mr English did his damnedest to undermine this past week). There are even glimpses of a “love mark” in her walkabouts.

But is there a widespread emotional attachment to her brand? Is there a popular reflex: want government, got to Helen? There was such a reflex for Margaret Thatcher in 1980s Britain — she was a “single-minded proposition”. But, ominously for Labour post-Clark, the Tory brand disintegrated once Mrs Thatcher went.

But at least Labour has the Clark brand. National has a lot of brand-building to do.

What can the advertising agencies do about that? Mr Wicksteed says an agency can create a brand: the dancing Cossacks in 1975, an advertisement that is etched into the minds of those who saw it, are an example.

No such stunning advertisement has yet emerged in this campaign. Maybe, in today’s fudgier MMP world, none can, though the Greens’ GM scare ads are the closest. But, then, as Ms Raynish and Mr Wicksteed point out, the Greens have the most single-minded proposition.