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January 19, 2019

Politicians Make Gimcrack Brands

Politicians are a funny lot. Their purpose is usually defined (by others) in altruistic terms. To represent the people. To promote the value of society. To protect life and property. And so on. An endless list of worthiness. Strange, when the characters who bid for political prominence seem to be almost entirely self-interested. Where is their fitness for purpose?

 While there is little enough branding of political individuals, you have to wonder whether branding could ever really help them. Most become elected through mobilisation of special interest groups. Most deals are done behind closed doors, even in the ‘developed’ democracies. Western European politicians have become slaves to the sound bite. To anyone with the attention span to observe them over a longer period must come to the conclusion that they have no agenda beyond the present. And brands can not be built on that. Unless perhaps you create a brand that is all about living in the present!

 America’s Mr. Obama has had a tough job. He came to office with a huge number of Americans declaring an almost visceral hatred for the symbol of what the poor man represented. Just yesterday I read that Republican leaders are taking him to court for running what they call ‘an Imperial Presidency’. Frustrated by Congress he has decided to use his pen and his phone to build a groundswell of support for further reforming policies. Congress does not like that, nor his early promise to change the way politics is done in Washington. But how well defined is his brand, two terms in?

Most of us outside the US are ill equipped to judge. We respond to America’s myopic view of the planet by limiting ourselves to their Presidential Elections. From a distance, Mr. Obama does not seem to lack worth. It just strikes many of us that a brand built on ‘can do’ becomes fatally weakened when its track record contains more examples of ‘can’t’.

Looking ahead to the next US Presidential Elections, which American politician brands do we know?  Hilary Rodham Clinton. What is the make up of her brand? – tough, committed, worthy, but not wildly attractive. Certainly not as attractive as her previously disadvantaged husband. Bill remains one of the most charismatic politician brands of the last 30 years. I learnt only this week that Hilary’s latest memoir ‘Hard Choices’ is top of the ‘worthy book’ list for people going on a beach holiday. But also the one most likely to get ditched after a few days, in favour of John Grisham or Maeve Binchy. Oops, too worthy or too serious – perhaps a people brand has to have a light and likeable side?

Angela Merkel is a solid German woman. In her own country her personal brand is tied to history of reunification, and the integration of East Germans into the more prosperous West. In Europe, she attempts to keep France in harness to give scale to her initiatives. This has been much harder to do since the combative Sarkozy brand was ousted by the damply ineffective Hollande. And now we hear that the Sarkozy brand may well be tarnished by a reports of in-office self interest.

UK’s Tony Blair brand has pushed the boundaries of credibility ever since he became the only Labour Prime Minister to serve a full second term. Now he has recast himself as a Middle East peace guru, in a region where his pronouncements and decisions have caused untold misery. Truly his personal brand is disconnected from any contemporary reality.

Here in Africa, we have produced some extraordinary Presidential brands. But they have rarely been actively marketed. They have simply become giant versions of their own individual realities, magnified by editorial comment. The more striking African presidential brands came out of strife. It is hard to win liberation or stoke a revolution without standing for something that polarises opinion. But without active marketing – setting an agenda for the brand and promoting its achievements to maintain belief in its relevance – many of them have been quick to fade.

I have only once had the opportunity to discuss the importance of branding with a senior politician. He was an African man who felt a sense of entitlement to high office. He had been a largely inactive Vice President for many years. So strong was his sense of entitlement that it soon became clear that the interests of voters were very far removed from his agenda. And that agenda paid no more than perfunctory attention to a handful of generic talking points. Delivering irrigation for agriculture (thanks to a one-off deal with the wily Israelis). A track record of engaging neighbours (on Vice Presidential junkets). Oh, and prioritising Education (I recall he had once been involved in a school fundraiser). So messaging was thin and branding was clearly irrelevant to him.

Mind you, when we showed him a branded hat shaped like an umbrella, his eyes fairly lit up.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. Most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.

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