Today sees the UK face an election already firmly planted in the history books. It will be the first UK election since Twitter and Facebook, the first UK election post Obama – the social media president – and the first UK election to feature televised debates. All of these triggering a new relationship between parties and the electorate. As we draw ever closer to the fateful decision tonight and the potential of an inefficient hung parliament, we ask whether the political parties have taken the right steps to engage with voters?

Over the next three days, there will be a special series of blogs focusing on the General Election and challenging whether the main parties would benefit from adopting customer strategy approaches used in private and public sector environments. Would a brand, channel and loyalty strategy drive better engagement?

To kick things off today I’ll explore the impact of branding in politics.

Tomorrow, and, in the aftermath Paul Clark will query whether a strategy for loyalty would produce a longer-term party faithful. Finally, next week Lynsey Abernethy will analyse the impact of channel management and how parties could better reach voters. If you would like to receive these thoughts and get involved then please sign up to our RSS feed and contribute to the debate in the comments section below.

Part 1: Style over substance? – The influence of branding in politics

Research regularly supports the opinion that brands affect how consumers evaluate products and services. In the often-cited Pepsi Challenge experiment launched by Pepsi in the 1970s, consumers in blind taste tests favoured Pepsi over Coke yet when the brand was subsequently revealed to them, Coke became the favoured drink by a wide margin.
Such branding principles are typically applicable in situations where consumer choice of some kind is involved. Therefore, as we are going to the polls today I’m going to look at the impact that branding has in politics, focusing on the 2010 Election – frequently dubbed as the “PR” Election.

The role of brand personality in politics

Politics, it appears is increasingly about symbolism as opposed to policy implementation, image rather than content. The hugely successful election campaign of “Brand Obama” in the US is a clear example of the role that branding and association plays in politics.
For voters, the personality of the party and its politicians it seems are not separate but consolidated to form an impression of the overall brand. Take the Conservative party since the last election for example and we see a new logo, new leader and a new team. When he was elected as leader David Cameron was quick to exhibit his dynamism and modernity by cycling to work, using an iPod and associating himself with fair-trade products. All these behaviours were designed to illustrate personality traits relevant to the choice of party and/or leader, their purpose being to illustrate the political brand rather than the real personality of the politician. I wonder how effective this has all been, and, how much of this rebranding has been at the surface level in the eyes of the public (especially with Cameron’s background in PR) and how much Cameron has actually changed the Conservative values compared to the Howard era? How will Tory supporters perceive the changes?

How does perception of the leader influence their party’s brand personality?

The leader of each party is particularly powerful in personality terms. Arguably, it is easier for voters to learn their personality traits than those of an inanimate entity, such as a party. Voters, for example, when faced with the choice around who to vote for may make their choices based on the character and integrity of the party leader.

One of the high profile events in this election campaign that has focused on these characteristics has been the TV debate and resulting analysis of the performances. I think that the spotlight on the main candidates is interesting from a brand perspective for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, with all the focus and attention on the main party leaders, the fact that we are actually electing our own local MPs and not these leaders seems to gain little attention – unless of course you are in their constituency. There is also the issue of length of tenure – using the example of the Labour party – and Tony Blair who left his position as Prime Minister to be succeeded by Gordon Brown. Leaders are voted in but only on a short-term basis unlike parties. There is also the fact that a lot of the messaging between the parties has been negative which potentially dilutes the core messaging in the mind of the electorate as to what the parties and their brands are about or stand for. Finally, the medium is the message as they say, and, I wonder how differently the leaders would have come across had the debate been on radio, or, had the audience had a greater participation. Televising debates it seems ensures a focus on the leaders more than the policies.

What role do the party’s brand personalities have in influencing the electorate?

Take the three main brands on offer to the electorate. Are they really differentiated significantly in any meaningful way? If you jotted down all the major policy differences between the three parties, how long would your list of differences be?

In an experiment conducted by Populus in 2006 with a similar premise to the Pepsi Challenge researchers asked two groups of people whether they agreed with the Conservative Party policy on immigration. One set was told it was Conservative policy, and the other just had the policy described to them but unattributed. The unattributed policy’s net approval rate was 12 points higher than the attributed one, which strongly suggests that the Conservative Party’s image was so bad that people suddenly stopped liking policies when they found out they belonged to the Conservative Party. These results illustrate that an important component of a brand’s image is its brand personality.

On the subject of substance Gordon Brown just this weekend is quoted as saying that Nick Clegg “Would make a very good game show host” but not a prime minister. Is Brown trying to focus the debate back to substance and policies (an area he sees himself as being strong in) whilst others have flourished with the focus on branding and personality traits? I visited a website called VoteforPolicies over the weekend which claims that it makes it easy to compare what the political parties are promising to do (read substance and policies). On this site you select four categories that are important to you and then from the list of policies within each section you select the set of policies that you like most. The site claims that it serves to “help you make an informed, unbiased decision about who to vote for.”

Have you taken the test on the site, and, if so do the results match those of the party you are intending to vote for? I took the test over the weekend, and, interestingly mine did!