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Cons-Lib coalition – the branding implications

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It’s been a very busy few weeks (freelancing, wedding preparations, even the odd weekend away), so I’ve not had chance to update this blog after the pretty astonishing traffic surge my last post created.

What’s more, I’ve been glued to the election coverage (on which point, it’s nice to see my earlier post questioning the role of social media in the election seems to have been on the money). It’s been an incredible few weeks in British politics, and from a branding perspective the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (ConDemNation, as it has quickly been tagged) throws up some huge issues.

First, what does it mean for the Tories? The interesting thing is that the coalition, though apparently a compromise born of necessity, may help David Cameron and the Tory brand in the long run. Cameron has been trying for years to reform the party’s image – he realised that a Conservative Party that appealed to the English shires could not win power on a national basis. But that message has not got through to huge swathes of the party. Cameron is unpopular in parts of the Conservative party because his leadership is based around a small clique; he does it that way because, frankly, he doesn’t trust lots of his own party. And you only have to look at what happened with Chris Grayling to see that he is probably right.

Cameron is a centrist that has tried to modernise the Tory brand with a new political positioning and a new ‘compassionate’ image (as well as that curious kids-drawing-of-a-tree logo). Yet he never quite managed to ‘seal the deal’ with the electorate because plenty of voters still didn’t trust the braying element of the party (or Cameron’s own posh-boy background).

So tying up with the Lib Dems, a centrist party with strong environmental and civil liberties credentials, is a masterstroke. It’s an astonishing attempt at partnership marketing, co-opting your partner’s brand strengths. If it works, it will detoxify the Tory brand, help make them a bit cuddlier, and make them far more electable whenever the next election takes place.

Then there’s the Lib Dems. It’s a much more complex situation for them. Arguably, part of their brand was their sheer powerlessness. They were the voters’ moral conscience, cash-strapped but high on principle, who could be employed as a protest vote either for fed-up middle class Labour voters or Conservative defectors. They were a way of reminding the big two parties that they couldn’t take their core vote for granted. A few years ago they veered to the left, and still have some pretty out-there policies, but for much of their existence they have sat neatly between Labour and the Tories.

Getting into power changes everything. Their left-wing credentials will be undermined by the fact they are propping up a Tory government. The hairshirt brigade, who previously could quite happily commit the Lib Dems to all sorts of crazy policies safe in the knowledge they’d never be put into practice, now find the party making compromises to get into power. This is a brave new world for the party, and one fraught with danger. There is a very real danger of a defection to Labour by some of its voters; to counter that, it must show voters of all persuasions who previously saw the Lib Dems as a wasted vote that the party has a role to play in power (and making that case will be easier if they push the Alternative Vote system through).

In short, what Nick Clegg needs to do is rebrand the Lib Dems. And the only way to do that is to be seen to deliver in government. If he fails, the Lib Dems could be wiped out at the next election, just as previous coalitions wiped out their predecessors, the Liberal Party. It’s a big risk – the Lib Dem brand could be completely undermined over the next few years.

Then there’s Labour. It actually polled better than many feared in the election, but it’s clear it needs a brand refresh. The departure of Brown and the end to the New Labour project means the party has to start again. For all its troubles, the New Labour machine proved one thing: to win elections convincingly it needs a credible, centrist vision. It took the Tories nearly a decade to work out it had to follow suit; can Labour now do it again more quickly? Bookies’ favourite David Miliband seems to recognise the scale of the challenge, but with the ConDemNation suddenly taking over the centre ground, Labour needs to find some new ideas. And it faces a core urban, working class vote the party has gradually alienated. For an intellectually and financially exhausted party, this rebuilding may take a while.

Finally, there’s the issue of the forthcoming spending cuts, which as we all know will be brutal. Mervyn King recently predicted these would severely hurt the popularity of the party in power, and that of course is possible. Cameron’s cuddly image may be compromised by the resurgence of the ‘nasty party’ in voters’ minds, and the Lib Dems’ role in the cuts will be under heavy scrutiny. But actually, I think Labour’s brand may suffer here too. The great realignment of politics in the 90s was built on two factors: the loss of confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to manage the economy in the wake of Black Wednesday, and the ability of Tony Blair to convince voters that Labour had moved on from its former financial recklessness. And for a decade, it seemed like Labour had buried its reputation for economic incompetence.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will be hurt by having to make savage cuts. But if they make them competently and fairly, and if they actually show they can deal with the deficit, they may be given some ‘tough love’ credit. And assuming they spend the next couple of years blaming the situation on the former government, Labour may find it has a mountain to climb to convince the Middle England voters it needs of its economic competence.

The beauty about branding in politics is that it is always at the mercy of events and the foibles of individuals. That makes the next few years impossible to call, but fascinating to watch.

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Why social media will not win the election

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Back in January, I was asked by a marketing consultant how important I thought digital would be in the upcoming UK general election. He obviously expected me to gush about how important Twitter/Facebook/YouTube would be, and seemed slightly shocked when I suggested that for all the noise around social media, the election could be more traditional than we thought. And a recent lunch with an agency boss working on one of the party’s campaigns confirmed to me that the parties recognise that online engagement can only be the start.

So it was with interest that I read the piece in this week’s Economist that flagged the limitations of social media as a political tool. It makes a number of good points, including the argument that Twitter is good for reaching journalists, but email reaches the actual voters. The upshot is that developments such as myconservatives.com, WebCameron and the left-leaning blogs can have an impact (including galvanising activists), but are, for now, unlikely to win a party an election on their own (though all parties still have to engage in these channels, otherwise they lose share of voice to their rivals).

Here’s why:

1. British politics is not US politics. The Obama campaign in 2008 made everyone aware of the political implications of social media. But the UK political environment is very different. We have become more presidential, but we do not elect presidents; we elect parties. We do not have the intense build-up of primaries – party leaders are decided by their parties, and are not chosen as part of the campaign build-up. That means political discourse between parties and the general public is generally less focused on a single point in time (an election) and more focused on general points-scoring. Elections can be called any time within a five-year parliament by the prime minister, so the campaigns are shorter, sharper and often more tactical.

2. Even for Obama, social media was only the start. The Obama social media drive served to establish him as a candidate and gave him considerable resources to mount a challenge. It did not on its own win him the election. TV, print, radio, outdoor and email (the 21st century equivalent of shoe leather) were all major parts of his campaign. This blend of digital evangelising and old-school politicking was developed in the primaries and continued into the main election campaign.

3. Social media is great at knocking things, but it’s far harder to build political enthusiasm. The parties have shown pretty deft use of some social sites to respond instantly to their rivals’ moves and to discredit them. John Prescott has proved an ace Twitterer, and Labour’s activists have been pretty effective at mocking the Tories’ campaigns via spoof posters. Any slip by the parties, once magnified by the echo chamber of Twitter et al, could damage their reputation; but success can be far harder to shout about and publicise, especially given the levels of cynicism there already are around politicians. The TV debates featuring the three party leaders will be fascinating – we’ll see how the successes and failure on the night are reflected in cyberspace.

4. It’s easier to build enthusiasm around single issues than complex political messages. The Facebook campaign behind Rage Against the Machine at Christmas showed how single issues (such as ‘don’t let Simon Cowell be Christmas number one’) can thrive within social media. Arguably, Obama’s ‘Change’ message gained momentum like a single issue and only later had to concern itself with actual policies. In the US, of course, the campaign is focused on the president. British political parties remain strange coalitions of interests, and presenting them like a single issue is far harder. You might buy into David Cameron, for example, but still have your doubts about Nicholas Winterton. A British general election puts them both up for the vote simultaneously. It’s interesting that Cameron has attempted a ‘Change’ message without being able to build it into a cause the way Obama did. He’s not personally as engaging, and he’s held back by his party.

That said, Labour has shown signs of using a single-issue approach – for example, its recently launched campaign to save Sure Start children’s centres from spending cuts.

5. The election will be won in key marginals. Social media campaigns have been causing some interesting headlines at a national level, but actually British governments are made and broken in a relatively small number of marginal seats. And a vote in these seats goes not just to a national party, but to a local politician. That means local issues and local personalities can come into play, factors that are below the national radar but need actual on-the-ground campaigning to address.

6. Old people vote more. Fact. Purely on an age basis, the more likely you are to use social media, the less likely you are to vote. And for the reasons already stated, there’s no sign of a sudden rush of young voters into the polling stations a la Obama.

Overall, this election promises to be the most fascinating since 1997, and the marketing tactics at its heart have become far more sophisticated. The rise of social media has made the national-level PR battle far more interesting, but the eventual incumbent of Downing Street will have to use more old-fashioned tactics as well.

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Written by davidtiltman

March 22, 2010 at 5:12 pm