A Branding (and Rebranding) Reality

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Political News Wednesday, December 23, 2015 View Count = 2835

A Branding (and Rebranding) Reality

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A Branding (and Rebranding) Reality” is written by Alex Marland from Memorial University of Newfoundland. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Alex Marland and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Academic analysis is penetrating when it is provocative. This is especially important where communication, strategy, and democracy are concerned. Some matters emerging from Election 2015 that warrant deeper consideration include the following.

1. The election was foremost about leaders’ personal brands. In campaign 2015, all parties and the media were squarely focused on leadership, to the detriment of the countless individuals who are involved in a deliberative and pluralistic democracy. So much energy was invested in discussing personalities that many Canadians likely employed valence politics: their vote was predicated on little more than whether or not they liked and trusted a leader, in the expectation that person was leading a party whose policies were in line with the elector’s values. If it is a problem that communication trends are contributing to the centralization of authority then we must assume this trend will not vanish because a new head of government happens to be charismatic.

2. The news media and social media are like a swarm of bees, buzzing from the latest opinion survey to the newest pseudo-scandal to celebrity-style diversions to real news. In campaign 2015, media swarming ranged from the serious (the Duffy trail, Syrian refugee crisis) to the semi-serious (candidates’ dismissals for past comments posted on social media) to the ridiculous (discussion about Stephen Harper’s reference to “old stock Canadians” during one of the leaders’ debates). In the moment, dramatic media coverage seems all-enveloping and urgent. Phenomenal resolve is required by political parties to stick to a core brand message.

3. The Liberal Party brand’s primary selling point was, is, and always will be its projection as the party of national unity and of Canadian federalism. It is no coincidence the Liberal Party’s electoral fortunes suffered with the diminished threat of Quebec nationalism. The 2015 election presented an opening for the Trudeau Liberals to propel national unity to the forefront on another dimension: uniting the country in the face of an acerbic Conservative government and prime minister. An image of unity, patriotism, and Canadian values cuts to the core of the Liberal brand.

4. The Conservative Party handed a majority government to the Liberals by failing to launch provocative negative television advertising in the campaign’s final hours. The Liberal Party ran negative ads successfully in the final days of Election 2004, invoking fear about the Harper Conservatives’ policy stances. Perhaps Canadians’ celebrity-style attachment to Justin Trudeau is why the Conservatives got uncharacteristically weak-kneed when so much was on the line. Understanding why Conservative strategists chose not to deploy hard-hitting negative advertising using sinister tones and horror-style images would be helpful for political marketing scholarship.

5. There was insufficient public scrutiny of the platform of the party that now controls the House of Commons and the executive branch of government. Despite the extraordinarily long campaign, there was little discussion about the finer points of the Liberal platform. For instance, in Parliament, the Liberal Party has plans for more free votes, a non-partisan process for appointing senators, the creation of a prime minister’s Question Period, reduced use of omnibus bills, and legislation by mid-2017 to enact electoral reform. In government, the PMO and ministers’ offices are to be subject to access to information requests, an advertising commissioner will provide oversight of government ads, there will be gender balance in cabinet, and scientists will face few restrictions on speaking out publicly. Political parties will be limited in how much they can spend between elections and an independent commission will organize leaders’ election debates. Such procedural matters are understandably “inside baseball” to most Canadians. The point is that on these and other policies the Liberals will be able to use their majority to push things through.

6. The Conservative Party must understand that its brand’s kryptonite is the propensity of conservatives and libertarians in its caucus to be seen as mean and uncaring, especially towards politically vulnerable populations. During the campaign, the Conservative Party was tone deaf to public sympathy for the plight of Syrian refugees, and the party’s gambit to provoke controversy about women wearing niqabs bordered on racism. These issues congealed to reignite the politically incorrect image of its legacy parties, Reform and Canadian Alliance. An image of intolerance caused a brand rethink among the many Canadians who demand greater compassion. Promoting a political agenda of low taxes need not be confused with matters that invoke the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

7. Tom Mulcair ought to launch the New Democratic Party into a major rebranding exercise. Social democrats should engage in deep pan-Canadian consultation about what today’s NDP is. This should culminate with a new party name, symbols and market positioning. The “new” in New Democratic Party is meaningless. An acronym is difficult to form an emotional connection with, and it causes brand incongruity in French Canada (NDP versus NPD). The colour orange deserves a rethink, given that purple now seems fashionable among progressives. If the NDP is indeed as ready for change as it professed during the campaign, then change should begin with the party brand.

These are just some of the angles that party analysts and democratic theorists conducting campaign post-mortems ought to consider.

Alex Marland is an Associate Professor of Political Science, and Associate Dean of Arts at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Marland researches the use of political marketing and strategic communication by Canadian political parties. He is the author of the forthcoming book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press, 2016) and is co-editor, with Thierry Giasson, of the UBC Press series Communication, Strategy, and Politics.

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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