In 1996 Helen Clark got a big hairdo and flash makeup and went public with this near-unrecognisable persona. It was the boldest cosmetic rebranding since Bob Harvey remodelled Norman Kirk in 1972 from greasy slob to greying statesman.
Julia Gillard had a cosmetic remake, for a women’s magazine, as a campaign manoeuvre in Australia’s election last month. As the polls plunged she then proclaimed that she was going back to the “real Julia”.
These pirouettes state a fact of modern politics: the leader’s brand is a critical, near-defining, element of the party brand. It is John Key versus Phil Goff as much as National versus Labour. The same goes for Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples and the Maori party and Rodney Hide and ACT.
The Greens, who have an enduring brand embedded in the environment, are the exception. The party brands its leaders more than the leaders brand the party.
Leaders got into the branding because parties went marketing. They did that as the old class loyalties frayed in the more diverse society and economy that developed from the 1960s. Marketers — which necessarily include the leaders — swapped ideology based on class interest for “values”. Helen Clark ran “values” against Key’s “fresh” in 2008.
Marketing has not generated homogenised messages, despite the “Labour-lite” media tag on Key’s National by opponents — and some supporters. To win the 40 per cent a big party needs to govern, the leader brand must be a credible fit with deep public assumptions about the party — the party’s enduring underlying brand. A leader’s “values” must resonate with those of the party’s core vote, which can vary from suburb to suburb. Clark’s social legislation (civil unions, prostitution reform, the whacking ban) estranged swathes of suburban males in 2008 who otherwise agreed with Labour on core economic policy.
National inked in the divider at its conference in July, with a raft of workplace law changes. National sees wages essentially as a cost. Labour sees wages essentially as sustenance. That difference is embedded in the party brands. Key and Goff are on opposing banks of a ravine that runs through the workplace.
Still, the dividing line is not as sharply drawn as a century, or even half a century, ago. Fewer people work in factories in routine jobs. More work in small service delivery firms and agencies. And under-40s want workplaces more customised as much as they want goods and services more customised.
That’s where brand Key has it over brand Goff.
Key is nearer that younger generation in mentality. He is affability personified: agreeable, gregarious, easy to be with, self-deprecating, eager to customise his government to every segment of the community.
That is a powerful brand. After Clark’s firmness, often eliding into severity, and strong alignment with favoured segments (not least, women), Key seems on everyone’s side and the public likes that. National is basking in that brand.
But leaders pass. What happens post-Key? What happens if, before that, brand Key decays? Scope for Key’s multiple positioning will narrow. He will have to offend voting segments (as he had to do with Tuhoe and as he chose to do on workplace law). How will all-things-to-all brand-Key look then? When he goes, will there be a strong successor-brand to which there can be a smooth transition? The most promising so far is Steven Joyce.
The decay or end of the brand-Key will open room for a new-brand Labour leader.
Post-Clark-brand Goff is not that. Clark had authority — like it or lump it. Goff does not. His brand is nice but indistinct: Key-lite affable, agreeable, adaptable but in the long shadow of the Clark-branded era.
Next month Goff will front a friendly Labour conference. But it will also be a party in longer-range search of a leader whose personality can rebrand Labour with wide appeal and deserving office but also true to Labour.