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Branding a Prime Minister

August 1, 2010

I’ve had the privilege of meeting Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard and yet I don’t really know any of them. To me they are ‘public brands’, mental ‘short-cuts’ to visions, periods in history, political eras and my own personal chapters. The fact is, they have the same abstract place in the psyche of the public as other mass-media brands.

PUBLIC PROPERTY

When a politician steps into public life, they give a publicly authored facsimile of themselves to the world – their public brand. Specifically for this article, the party leader, whether current Prime Minister or opposition aspirant, looks to rally broadcast and other media to communicate to the masses and they work toward simple sound-bytes that will resonate for audiences, grab attention and seed ideas. In a literal sense, they hope to build neural pathways in their audience that will deliver electoral and other political results. To do this en masse is the art of brand building. Successful public personalities have a clear, strong and simple brand that may not always be aligned with their true personality.

Hawke was the ‘Aussie Bloke’. Keating was the ‘Arrogant Genius’. Howard was the ‘Ernest Nerd’ and Rudd a younger variant on the same theme. You may have a different description of these leaders, but your own neural pathways would connect the following thematic concepts to one of Australia’s past Prime Ministers … beer, antique clocks, cricket, silver-fox, arrrgh! (deep and guttural), Armani, bushy-eyebrows and economic-stimulus. We all have a mental version of their public brand and the related neural connections to concepts, positive and negative.

IMPORTANCE OF PRIME MINISTERIAL BRAND

We all know politicians are prone to bend the truth and Prime Ministers perhaps most of all. In fact, Australians probably have as much tolerance for being deceived as any country on the planet. Brands and their advertising messages take the same liberties – more or less. Let’s be honest, Julia Gillard’s ‘Moving Forward’ is as vacuous and patronizing as ANZ Bank’s ‘We Live In Your World’. Other brands and political messages have been even more insidious and baseless in their messaging. Nevertheless, we all need some component of these mental short-cuts to position related themes and relevance within our own interpretation of meaning. After all, we don’t really know them in their full reality.

In successful brands, there usually lies some form of ‘fundamental truth’ behind the ‘artistic license’ of the public brand messages. It would be commonly accepted that Bob Hawke was proudly Australian, that Paul Keating was passionate about economic reform, and that both Howard and Rudd were driven and hardworking. We may forgive certain political ‘lies’ (unfortunately), in the same way that we forgive certain brand advertising, as long as we can create our own perception of fundamental truth. McDonald’s brand resonates convenience but not health (no matter how hard they try). Kevin Rudd was a driven person but did not necessarily appear pleasant. These are my personal ‘truths’, established from my interaction with brand messages and not necessarily established facts. Nevertheless they are a reality for me – perception is reality!

THE EXCEPTION THAT PROVES THE RULE

So what is going wrong with Labor in 2010 and the Julia Gillard campaign?

My view, and the premise of this article, is that Julia Gillard does not have a ‘BRAND’ that Australian’s can locate in their personal or shared psyche. Although there are messages, some of them clear, the individual needs to find a mental anchoring point, a perceived ‘fundamental truth’ as a foundation-stone for other message development. In the case of Julia Gillard, I believe that the positioning of her personal ‘brand’ has been repeatedly thwarted by sabotage (internal and external), poor strategic messaging and perhaps most of all by her desire to remain ‘un-branded’. Let me provide some examples:

Julia Gillard stands for Women – here is a prospective brand attribute that is strong, clear and powerful in its political force. The problem is that many Women do not see Julia as their advocate. The rumors of caucus-room voting against parental leave, when combined with contradictions between messaging of ‘don’t focus on me as a woman’ and ‘do focus on me – women’s magazine articles’ weaken this potentially powerful Prime Ministerial ‘brand’. To make matters worse, Julia’s personal ambition, without the family balance that resonates for many women, is problematic in making this a ‘touchstone core facet’ of her public brand.

Julia Gillard is Genuinely Concerned – again, this is a ‘public brand attribute’ that could have worked for Labor and looked as if it was gaining momentum. The problem here is that the forced removal of Kevin Rudd smacks of personal ambition over public advocacy. This has been made worse by accusations of irresponsibility in relation to the National Security Council, negotiations with mining companies and perhaps most of all by the clearly trained voice cadence and body language that is tonally parent to child, rather than adult to adult. Unfortunately this patronizing tone is not modulated by Julia Gillard in accordance with circumstance and the only ‘break-out’ of the ‘in-camera mode’ occurs in moments of restrained anger. This works against the building of an empathic core brand message.

Julia Gillard has a Platform – there are other possible ‘core brand anchors’. For example, it is possible to build a message around a clear platform that is fundamental to the person’s makeup. For example, Paul Keating’s public personality was constructed as intertwined with economic management and reform. The problem here is that ‘Moving Forward’ is hollow and generic and little else has been offered up that doesn’t come complete with its own contradiction, either in messaging or as a result of Labor party disharmony. In my personal case, I am a strong supporter of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and boosting Australia’s technical infrastructure to world-class levels. The problem is that many similar-minded voters feel that the Internet Filter (policy which has been deceptively hidden during the campaign) will hobble Australia’s potential online advantage. What could have been perceived as a ‘fundamental brand truth’ around a platform of technical advancement has had the power of its message completely destroyed. In other policy areas, party disharmony, paucity of message and back-tracking have done similar damage.

THE HOLLOWMEN (AND WOMEN)

I am not suggesting that Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party are better or have conducted a better campaign. In fact the evidence within Social Media and mainstream political commentary are that the public is underwhelmed by both major parties and struggling to pick a platform to which they can relate, trust and extract a ‘fundamental mental anchor’. The additional problem for Julia Gillard is that as a ‘personal brand’, the same problem exists. Tony Abbott, as objectionable as he may be to many voters, has the comparable advantage of a clearer personal brand. There is at least enough to ‘lock’ an ‘Abbott Brand’ into their thinking.

Tony Abbot seems conservative, most likely strongly patriarchal, vein and at times both unpleasant and unsympathetic. However many Australians seem able to place his personal brand within a ideological framework and create a view of what this means for Australia. Julia Gillard is more of an enigma and her brand is far more opaque. There is no place for an enigma as a ‘public brand’. Simplicity is required to build a brand – after all, a brand is nothing more than a ‘mental shortcut’.

Julia, it is time to put your ‘core public brand’ on display before it is too late. If it is to be Julia Gillard, ‘a hard-arsed, ambitious and ruthless woman’, that is a far better strategic platform than hollow, unquantified and contradicted.

For the record, I am an undecided voter and generally vote policy over party. I also live in McEwan, a potentially marginal seat and I am still deciding. Please feel free to add your views (comments) here …

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010 1:21 AM

    Great blog & I agree with much of it. I too vote in McEwan. I will vote Labor because anyone who will abandon the NBN given its great start (I’m dep chair AIIA Vic & get feedback from many professionals working on NBN) does not have the judgement to run the country!!

    On top of this Abbott is withdrawing funding for the national health record. Without this we are doomed to an inadequate health system in the digital age.

  2. August 19, 2010 6:46 AM

    Good blog post.
    I also think it has a little to do with her being the first female PM.
    Kristina Keneally will face the same challenge.
    There is a dilemma for the ‘hollow men’ in portraying her as tough enough but at the same time needing to portray her as a woman.
    That she took Kevin Rudd on could’ve been used to her advantage.
    That she has better admin skills could’ve also been used to her advantage
    But the ALP has been so shy about exposing their inner workings that her greatest strengths have been hidden because of that fear.
    I think her ‘brand’ will emerge when she has this election behind her.
    And you gotta remember: ” A woman has to be twice as good to go half as far” in our society.

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