What's in a brand in a world where you are what you vote?

Do you buy on brand or price? Are you what you wear and eat and groove to? Do you have to have the latest electronic techno-twist?

This is the modern language of politics. Parties now bother about brand and hire marketers.

Take leaders. David Lange was a brand, judging by this month’s public celebration of myth: anti-nuclear and stand-up-for-ourselves. Winston Peters is a brand: challenge, controversy, maverick, outspokenness. Don Brash came into politics as a brand: monetary disciplinarian. Peter Dunne became, briefly, a brand: commonsense.

Take parties. Save-the-planet Greens have owned one of the strongest niche brands, though it may now be weakening. Destiny’s moral crusade has a strong brand for its small following. New Zealand First is inextricably the “seniors” — to whom it markets itself as the rescuer of cultural security from migrants and the politically correct. The Maori party is self-determination and pride in being Maori.

Once parties were who their supporters were. For decades Labour was workers (and empathisers) and National was bosses (and wannabes). You voted who you were.

But the big parties’ support bases frayed and fragmented, diversified and dispersed. They had to reinvent themselves as “catch-all” parties, pitching to a consumerist electorate. Modern voters don’t buy goods at the grocer or haberdasher or garage. They shop in brand-infested supermarkets, department stores and shopping malls. They don’t just make a living; they live by their lifestyles.

Hence the arrival of the political marketers to help you match political party to lifestyle. And hence the emergence over the past decade or so of a new branch of political analysis.

Most political “scientists” are askance at brand analysis, with its associated market-speak. They still talk left-right and social movements and ideology and that can explain much of politics. But not all. Market analysis helps fill in the gaps.

Unsurprisingly, this has come more from business academics (with a typically thin understanding of politics) than from political academics. An exception is Massey University’s Claire Robinson, daughter of the respected former Victoria University political academic Alan Robinson and one herself, though she is now head of communication design.

” A political marketing perspective likens voters to active consumers of commercial products and services and voting to product consumption,” says Robinson. “The consumer-voter assesses which party will deliver the most value and best meet their needs. Politicians must understand voters, what moves and motivates them and deliver.”

So parties must “sense and respond to consumers’ needs, not push a push a product”.

The political academics nevertheless have a point. Political brands are not the same as commercial brands. There is no direct parallel between Labour and Levis, National and Nike.

Parties are, for example, “bundles of issues”. Labour bundles up peace, fairness and social justice, minority rights and the interests of the less-well-off, wrapped up in an ambition to even up life-chances. National bundles up defence alliances, self-reliance and choice, property rights and smaller government — plus, recently, emerging issues of physical and cultural security: crime, the Treaty, social liberalisation (PC) and, most recently, immigration.

But bundles of issues are not the whole story and in any case have to be constantly updated or the party gets marooned. Moreover, British researchers from as far back as the 1960s have found that even loyal partisans get their party’s policy wrong on even major issues — sometimes dead wrong.

Voters’ adherence, especially if it is long-term, is to something deeper — an emotional bond, not a rational one. That is brand. “It forms the basis of a party’s long-term relationship with its core supporters,” says Robinson.

Parties pay a price when they damage that emotional bond. Labour did with Rogernomics in the 1980s: it abolished the guaranteed job at the heart of its contract with core supporters. When National went radical in the early 1990s it breached its contract to deliver moderation.

Both lost 13 per cent of vote share, opening space for niche parties. The Alliance traded on a pre-Rogernomics-Labour brand. When National backed away from radicalism, ACT picked up its market-liberal adherents.

But it is very difficult to develop a niche party into a catch-all party. Subaru will never be a threat to Toyota. ACT’s ambitions to be a 50 per cent party were fanciful; likewise New Zealand First’s 20 per cent ambition now.

Big brands’ market share and history protect them. Provided they update themselves as their political markets change, they should be able to stay big. Both Labour and National in the end survived as the dominant pair through the past 25 years of revolution.

Labour didn’t junk its history: the mystical figures of Micky Savage and Lange are part of the brand, vital to repairing the 1980s damage. But from the 1970s it extended the evening up workers’ life chances to “identity groups”, notably women, gays and ethnic minorities. During the 1990s it explored “third way” ideas to cope with the social and economic impact of globalisation. And it found a leader who, improbable as it seemed in 1996, gradually developed some marketing skills.

Last year Labour again consciously rethought its brand — and explicitly thought of that exercise as rebranding. It now aims to present itself as “competent government”, “fair and inclusive”, “creative and innovative” and “proud of Kiwis”. Its campaign slogan picks up two of those ideas: “Forward. Together.”

National did something similar, though did not so explicitly call it a rebranding. It restated its core values and more recently developed some keywording to go with them: “mainstream”, personal responsibility, individual choice, strong communities and families. It sums this up in its “getting ahead” slogan and encapsulates some of it in constant references to “hardworking New Zealanders”.

A brand cannot be conjured from thin air, as each election’s crop of deluded hopefuls finds. It must have market resonance and be credible as a description of the product/party. The emotional connection must constantly be replenished with the right phrases and imagery.

Thus, an Auckland brands specialist says, Coca-Cola has invested heavily over a long period in “fun, youth and activity” and Toyota in “family”. At home the hugely successful Zespri has built its brand around “putting life into life”, with vibrant and uplifting imagery.

Of the two big parties, Labour is doing better at that so far in this campaign. Its launch, swathed in red and with a brilliant opening video montage, projected creativity through two top rock bands and then Sam Neill. Clark multitudinously repeated the word “proud”.

National is lightyears from its muddle of three years ago. But it still has work to do. It has gone for jokiness in its billboards, pamphlets and television advertising which doesn’t fit with the serious business voters expect of a government. It curiously chose funnyman Jim Hopkins to do his trademark turn at the launch, complete with off-message asides. Brash did not drive home his marketers’ keywords as Clark did.

In the leaders debates so far Clark is getting in more brand connections than Brash (though also has been overbearing, which is an element of her personal brand that turns many voters off). And Brash’s fumbles over policy are undermining the in-charge brand he brought from the Reserve Bank.

But there is a danger for Labour which skilled marketers recognise: a brand can over-reach itself, claim what can’t credibly be claimed. In appropriating “creativity” and “Kiwi pride”, Labour may be doing just that. Also, given its stumbles in the summer and autumn, it has felt unable to push the “competent” line until recently, though it is now able to point to a “government-in-waiting” which may be a telling point in the final stages of the campaign.

Where is this brand dimension taking us? To politics’ parallel with jeans and sugar-and-caffeine killer-drinks and iPods: you are what you vote. The challenge for Clark and Brash is to get large numbers of voters defining themselves politically by their party’s brand.

In politics-speak that comes down to defining the centre by getting the political debate conducted in its language. National did that effectively in the 1950s and 1960s. The prize for the stronger brand now is that sort of long-lived government.

Which is what Clark wants and Brash wants to win off her. In these days of prime ministerial campaigning, the battle is now between two leaders projecting and embodying — or not — their parties’ brands.

Next: Our inverted leaders