The brand contract vs the political contract

Posted: May 30, 2014

Andrew Welch, Owned Platformsby Andrew Welch After the recent national elections last month, I was struck by a number of parallels between the world of politics (and political parties especially) and the world of brands and branding generally.

I should say upfront, that I am not a political commentator nor am I peddling any particular brand of politics. I’m simply comparing my experiences – at home and abroad – of being courted by political parties, with being courted by brands.

In the brand world, we are adept at being courted by competing products, services or companies, all vying for our attention and custom. As consumers, we confidently engage with or deflect each advance hundreds of times a day. We intuitively understand – and increasingly dominate – the ‘brand contract’.

Conversely, we are much less adept at being courted by political parties. The ‘political contract’ simply does not inspire us with the same level of confidence. And this, despite the fact that many political parties have been in existence much longer than many of the brands we willingly – and some times quite instantly – entrust with our custom.

Why so? Perhaps it’s that we are only called upon to exercise our vote for a party reasonably infrequently (certainly not daily) – perhaps that diminishes our confidence. Perhaps we feel skeptical about our ability to benefit from a political outcome – perhaps that increases our disinterest. Or perhaps, as I am beginning to feel, political parties simply don’t abide by the rules that successful brands do; rules that today’s generation has become used to and take as a given.

To start with, we never refer to a political party as a ‘brand’. In fact, the lexicon of brands and branding somehow completely evades the world of politics. This is not mere semantics. The lexicon of branding is purposeful, focused in its commitment to provide a customer with a valuable and distinctive proposition. And we now know that the world’s most successful brands (BrandAsset™ Valuator survey) are built on two key pillars: Relevance to customer (placing needs and wants at their heart) and Difference to competitors (providing new, superior or unique value not found elsewhere). From these pillars are born that all important customer trust.

Politics appears to concern itself with the issue of Relevance – discerning our real needs and wants – at specific intervals only, primarily when our vote is sought. Little wonder then that a recent Marfa study found that more than four in five South Africans held little trust in politicians. As far as Difference is concerned, politics appears to spend too much time denigrating rival parties or ‘competitors’, as opposed to being single-mindedly hell-bent on focusing and delivering its own distinctive value. (Imagine your favourite brand slagging off its competitor as its main marketing tactic). Perhaps our skepticism is well placed, after all.

In a brand world, we have grown to expect that any brand vying for our attention must be able, at a minimum, to perform its promised function. Ideally, it should also go much further so as to reflect positively on us as individuals and build our loyalty. In other words, delivering on the brand promise is non-negotiable. Politics, on the other hand, evades the notion of promise. It declares its intention by way of a manifesto and invites us to buy into it on paper. In politics, ‘you can’t try before you buy.’

In the brand world, this is boggling: no brand would commit to massive capital expenditure in R&D, product sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, marketing strategy and spend etc, on the basis of an intention. It does so on the basis of vision, conviction and commercial savvy, out-witting or out-pacing competitors, in order to deliver that all-relevant and distinctive competitive proposition that leads (with enormous effort) to customer loyalty.

And yet, the world of politics it has to be said, commands enormous loyalty – or party faithful – that generation after generation, election after election casts its vote with unquestioning predictability. The branding world would do well to examine and better understand what commands this trans-generational loyalty, the likes of which is seen nowhere else other than in the worlds of sport and politics.

Perhaps the issue of competition explains this. For it is ingrained in us that free markets, open competition and customer choice is a good thing; it keeps brands endlessly focused on delivering superior benefits, innovation and value for customers. Choice – real, credible alternatives – that allow us to take informed decisions, help us feel in control. In today’s brand world, the absence of choice – or very limited choice at best – is unimaginable. In the political world, choice between parties, between policies, between leaders etc., – real, credible alternatives – are typically limited. The notion of range or assortment or variant do not form part of the lexicon. Little wonder, perhaps, that we feel little control over proceedings in the political world. The political world, it seems, is dominated by the few. Majority is deemed to be a good thing, a worshipped goal (the equivalent in the brand world of lauding market share alone as the measure of meaningful success). In the world of politics, the reality of a duopoly – principally a governing party and an opposition party – is necessarily tolerated.

Perhaps one thing the political world could take from the branding world is to never take the man on the street for granted. Of course, brands inflate their promises with marketing speak, have us aspire to unreachable worlds and repeatedly persuade us onto the material treadmill. But their language is never misleading or duplicitous, it engages and respects. In a brand world filled with unlimited choice, there is simply too much at stake not to do so. The language of politics, on the other hand, often appears vague, obscuring fact rather than expressing it, characteristically long on intent, but short on execution. George Orwell was its harshest critic when he said: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

As the political courting continues to intensify with election day fast approaching, it would be wrong to imply that the political world is oblivious to the mechanic of good marketing. On the contrary, it has taken many a leaf out of its book. But for all its crafted manifestos, rehearsed sound bites, impassioned rhetoric and careful choreography, perhaps the one thing it should do more of is treat its voter the way the brand world treats its customer – with on-going and real understanding, open engagement, relevant and distinctive proposition and a clear and unequivocal vision.

For in a world where we are used to making informed purchase decisions daily as part of the ‘brand contract’, no decision, surely, can be more important – nor should be more informed – than the decision we take about the future government and future good of our country.