Sunday, April 24, 2011

Political Party Branding: Liberals vs. Conservatives 2011 election

One of my favorite ad agencies is Sid Lee. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing my advertising buddy Eric talk about the Sid Lee philosophy a few times. One day he made a presentation to my class and made a remark that went something like:

“We often prefer working with challenger and tier II brands.”

The idea behind this thinking is that the front-runner brands have more to lose, take less risk, and like to grow market share incrementally. From a marketing perspective, this usually means the marketing is “stay the course” and communications become less innovative and fun. (Sid Lee prides itself on bold agendas.) In contrast, challenger/tier II brands have a lot less downside and a lot more upside. Therefore, these brands are more willing to try bold initiatives to shake things up. That’s why most, though not all, of the boldest campaigns come from 2nd rank players. Let’s do a couple comparisons.

Coca-Cola (a quintessential Tier I brand) has made excellent ads throughout its history, but generally speaking, their campaigns followed non-risky scripts around cute polar bears and attractive international people singing in“perfect harmony.” Pepsi (historically, a tier II brand), was not on the cola radar screen until they made bold moves in the 1980s to shake up the cola market. Pepsi’s daring “More people prefer the taste of Pepsi, Pepsi Challenge” and “The Choice of the New Generation campaign with Michael Jackson” campaigns created the cola wars directly at the expense of Coke. (By the way, both of the Pepsi campaigns were incredibly innovative at the time). If you still need more examples about the tier IIs making more brave marketing efforts, consider the Apple campaigns back when Apple was a tier II brand. The 1984 and Mac communications were incredibly bold gestures. Today, of course, Apple is the tech leader largely through smart products and branding. But, with more to lose, Apple now stays closer to typical incumbent brand strategies and communications. All that to say, Apple is a great example how a tier II brand can become tier I.

This takes us to political party branding in Canada. What I’m going to write in this blog is not about any political view. It is about how the Conservatives and Liberals have managed their brands in this 2011 election campaign.

When the election was called on March 26th, the Conservatives were the front runners (tier I ) and polling somewhere around 35% national support. The Liberals, the “natural governing party of Canada” and main challenger, held the tier II spot with around 25% national public support. While all parties knew an election was at hand, very quickly, the Conservatives put forth their brand positioning which centered around two core brand values:

1) Economic stability through measured, cool-headed, calculated policies;
2) Tough-on-crime.

I picked a day (April 16th) to check out the Conservative party leader’s Tweet as a proxy for positioning support. Take a look at how focused the official Steven Harper Tweeting is on the message about crime:

Punishing human smugglers. Victims count and criminals must pay their debt. Conservative tough on crime vs. the coalition (unstable government) soft on crime. Tough on sex crimes. This is tight, narrow, risk-free messaging to support the Conservative brand position. There is nothing bold or exciting here. It is classic market share leader branding messaging- with the tone you would expect from Tide or Crest. What about Harper limiting press questions? That is classic front-runner election tactics if you are risk averse. It might not be desired in a democracy, but it is effective brand management.

Now, let’s check out the Liberal leader’s Tweets on the same day.

Ignatieff's Tweets are about "rising up". What the hell is he talking about? By the time Ignatieff was Tweeting these comments, had already be panned in the press. (His “rise up” comments were being compared to the Howard Dean scream in main stream press.) Trolling through other Liberal Tweets and you find ad-hoc, helter-skelter messaging that rarely has consistent purpose. Translation: The party appears adrift. The Liberal party doesn’t have (or isn’t communicating) its brand values. That’s a classic brand positioning problem.

So what should the Liberals be doing/have done? Refer back to my friend from Sid Lee. If you have a clear market share leader that is tough to dislodge, the challenger needs a bold move. Unlike Pepsi which has years to claw at Coke, the election cycle is only a few weeks long for the Liberals to overtake the Conservatives. So if you run a party brand, you have to pick something that is going to resonate with voters right away. This year the bold move ought to relate to the economy. Ignatieff, would have been wise to revisit Clinton’s 1992 cliche: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

How about this for a bold move for challenger party? “It’s time to start connecting Canadians with efficient high speed rail from Windsor to Quebec City, through Toronto and Montreal. In the west, let’s start with Edmonton to Vancouver." This type of effort could support a Liberal position of “smart economics” by creating jobs now and lowering future transportation costs - and “national unity” by linking the country just like Sir John A MacDonald did. By doing this, it would also bite into some tasty Conservative underbelly (e.g. environmental issues, the party's limited vision).

Now the high speed rail idea may not be the right one, but taking a position (ie. 2 brand values) that is supported by a daring idea (e.g. the high speed rail) will set the news agenda, capture the imagination of Canadians, and attract votes. But the Liberal party seems to be content as the 2nd place party. As a Canadian, I am frustrated by this because I am a firm believer in competition and choice. I want all of my national leaders to generate healthy ideas to be incorporated in the national dialogue and agenda. But right now, the Liberals have a highly intelligent man heading a party that does not have a position. Ignatieff may very well have the abilities to lead the nation, but without a proper management of the Liberal brand during the election, he is not in the game to get that chance. In contrast, Harper has, for the most part, effectively managed his party's brand by employing a classic "front-runner-risk-averse" campaign throughout the election. By the Obama standard, if you can (brand) manage your campaign well, you are (largely) qualified to lead the country. You may or may not like what the Conservatives do (or do not do), but the Conservative leader has a better understanding of party branding than his nearest rival. And that is a fundamental reason why the Conservatives are going to be re-elected.


  1. It almost seems as if Ignatieff doesn't want to win the election. He us running a respectable campaign - one which would allow him to resign gracefully upon defeat. Who knows perhaps he decided that politics is not for him - after all he has the worst attendance record in parliament of any of the leaders.

  2. To me... the NDP makes more sense than the Liberals because I know what they stand for... environmental protection... supporting the poor against corporate interests... What happened to the Liberals as the party of balance?... The NDP is closer to the party of balance now.

  3. Anyone notice how the NDP surge has affected Jack Layton's accessibility? He's slashed his question period time way down. What a change for Jack!

  4. Great post Bob, and the election results validates your analysis.