Why political parties don’t understand their own brands

There is one vital thing that political parties in the UK do not seem to grasp: brand value.

Like many who don’t fully understand the power of brand value, parties think of ‘branding’ in the most superficial way – logo, colour choice, and so on. Yet brands stand for much more than that. They are what people feel viscerally and intuitively about a particular brand.

Brand value is composed of a constellation of qualities built up slowly, painstakingly and consistently over many years. Each brick has to fit with the next to construct a cohesive edifice. And the overall shape of the desired edifice has to be clear before one starts laying the foundations and putting down the first bricks.

And, once built, the whole edifice can be brought down in a flash by a single mis-step.

The epitome of brand destruction was most recently demonstrated by the Liberal Democrats with the increase in tuition fees while in coalition. The policy was well thought out. It was rational. It actually helped both less well-off students and universities. But it was destructive of the party’s brand. A brand that, for decades, had education as one of its core components. Education as the route to social mobility and personal liberation. A fundamental part of what the brand meant to a core constituency of the party.

What was popularly perceived as a massive increase in tuition fees struck at the very heart of the brand. It didn’t matter that the policy was ‘well thought out’ and ‘rational’. That is far too complex and takes far too long to explain. Intuitively the policy was destructive of brand value. A little bit like Porsche launching a model that competed with the Kia Soul. It would probably make money. But it would undermine and destroy the core brand value built up over decades.

Brands can be transformed successfully. Tony Blair transformed the Labour brand into New Labour. Corbyn has, once again, transformed the Labour brand. But, although they travelled in opposite directions, both transformations painstakingly made sure that the shift remained linked to core Labour brand values. They were well thought out, cohesive transformations. Both worked.

What of today’s Conservative Party? Competence in government, and, particularly, economic competence, have been core to the Conservative Party’s brand value. The current government is dismantling them at a frighteningly fast rate. Nobody would intuitively associate ‘competence’ with the current government. And, as we say in our recent pamphlet“a botched Brexit over-reach that harms the UK economy might damage the fundamentals of the Conservative Party brand for years to come.”

Brexit and the antics of the current government could well be to the Conservative Party what tuition fees have been to the Lib Dems. Sadly, that might matter little or nothing to the current crop of hard core Brexiteers. For them, other Conservative values – patriotism, ‘independence’, sovereignty, etc – are all that matters.

Margaret Thatcher, of course, had this right. She was vocal in her Eurosceptic rhetoric but would never in a million years have contemplated an exit from the EU. Unlike the current blinkered extremists, she understood the core components of the Conservative brand perfectly and intuitively. Hence her lasting success.

The current Conservative Party can only dream of having such a deep understanding of brand value and of the same ability to deliver the brand stewardship that we all saw in the Thatcher years.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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