Brand politics

Dan Gardner’s latest article compares the success of the Conservatives and failure of the Liberals in terms of their basic branding message.

He argues that one of the keys to the success of the Conservatives is that they have identified and sold their brand as “small government and individual liberty.” He rightly notes that their actions often contradict their own brand, but in marketing beliefs matter more than reality (this is why people still equate fiscally conservative with fiscally responsible).

He goes on to note that the only brand the Liberals have been holding onto is “the party that governs.” This worked fine when the Liberals were in power, or even in Official Opposition, since they were the natural alternative. Now, as a third-place party, though, the Liberals continue to look arrogant and like they stand for nothing.

He finishes by arguing that the Liberals should adopt a core theme of being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” to differentiate themselves from both the Conservatives and the NDP. Gardner otherwise ignores the NDP in this piece, so it’s up to us to come up with what their key message is, perhaps “progress through cooperation” or more cheekily “The party that Jack built.” Going through the NDP’s preamble leaves it a bit ambiguous what the key message should be.

And here’s where the first chip in Gardner’s article appears.

While the idea of branding is pushed hard by marketing execs and gurus, it remains unclear if the evidence actually supports the notion that having a solid brand will improve your sales or whether the converse is the case.

In Hard Facts…, the evidence-based management book I recently reviewed, the authors are quite sceptical of claims that establishing a concrete strategy will lead to organizational success. Instead, they declare it a dangerous half-truth, noting that while strategy is important, leadership and effective implementation is often far more critical.

This point can be demonstrated in the Liberals where Bob Rae’s (interim) leadership has generally been seen as quite successful so far in revitalizing the party, including recent spikes in poll numbers.

Gardner somewhat acknowledges this point near the end of his article when he says

But it takes more than grassroots gab sessions to cultivate an identity and craft it into a brand. It takes calculated leadership of the sort that Stephen Harper deployed to make “small government and individual liberty” the Conservative standard.

I generally like Gardner’s work, and while there is some to like in this piece, it comes off as a weak argument to me, since he failed to really bring in any evidence for his assertion. He cites one example of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as where effective messaging has worked, but with so many confounding variables (fundraising ability, willingness to smear and lie, increasing the vitriol, never-ending campaigning, centralizing all messaging, etc.) it’s a really weak case. If anything, the Conservative example shows us that strong leaders are more important than simple messages, perhaps the Liberals should keep looking for their next messiah leader (i.e. someone who can communicate).