Monday, 18 January 2010

Idiots, Naomi Klein and the branding of political personality


The other day, Naomi Klein of “No Logo” fame, penned a long, rather impenetrable and certainly meandering think piece for the dearly loved Guardian. Now Ms Klein is nothing if not consistent and lays into her favorite target: “corporate branding”. And this time those bad old brands have taken over the government.

Now I don’t wish to rehearse the legion reasons why Ms Klein is massively and dangerously wrong – why she fails to realise that it is better for corporations to invest in your and my minds than in the pockets of decision-makers. Why the rejection of the trademarked brand gives power to producer cartels. And why we are rich because of brands rather than the other way round. Ms Klein crawled from out the pseudo-liberal American left with its hypocritical and selective take on freedom and its hatred of the ordinary and everyday. What she says displays a deep misunderstanding of marketing.

However, Ms Klein sparked another interest of mine – the idea of the personal brand (or even the anti-brand as she likes to position herself which is really cute). Naomi, ever glib, slipped out this little opinion:

“So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers.”

Well leaving aside the rapid falling to earth of this Icarus of politics, I was struck by the significance of the political leader as a brand and the importance of that brand to the success or otherwise of a government. However, I suspect that a few moments glimpse at history (and fiction - Liberty Valance springs to mind straight away) will show that, far from Obama – Man as Brand – being as new phenomenon, he is a continuation of a great American tradition.

We have only to think of Theodore Roosevelt with his “action man” positioning, the “Camelot” of JFK and Reagan’s “Sunrise in America” to appreciate that the ‘personality brand’ is central to American politics. It could be said that the “backwoodsman” image of Davy Crockett – even of Abe Lincoln – was central to positioning and the political brand.

As we stumble towards another British General Election, the ‘personal brand’ is taking centre stage. This isn’t new – right back to Disraeli the individual personality of a politician has been significant – but this will be the first British General Election where that fact has been placed centre stage. The campaign is being drawn as a battle between leaders – a war of champions – rather than a contest between competing party organisations. And the brand positioning of those leaders will be central to the outcome.

I’ve said before than this is a retrograde step – I do not get a choice between leaders but a choice between ciphers who may or may not reflect what those leaders want to do (or even what they say they want to do). And the idea that the careful wrapping up of politics into a nice parcel represents an effective approach to branding and positioning shows yet again that our politicians don’t get marketing strategy either. In truth Naomi Klein is right about branding. It isn’t the salvation its advocates say and it is but one element of one part of an overall marketing strategy.

There is a problem. There really is. But it’s not branding. It’s not that corporations are trying to capture government – nothing new there government has always been corrupt. It’s that we, the everyday idiots, don’t care. One day we’ll wake up, realise our mistake and pull the whole house down. Until then I’m going to carry on drinking Nescafe, wearing Levis and all the other bad consumer stuff that Naomi doesn’t like!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two fairly unrelated points.

Firstly, I remember watching some TV documentary, and the earliest brands were for tea. The reason being was that some unscrupulous tea sellers were collecting used leaves from hotels and repacking and reselling them as new. Brands were an attempt to give a guarantee of quality. Of course, if some brands choose to devalue their brand by selling rubbish using the same brand as their quality stuff, more fool them.

Secondly, regarding political branding, something that's irked me about the diversity of UK far left parties is that they seem to swap and change names with great regularity, rather than "building the brand". I suspect this has a lot to do with escaping previous scurrilous statements and policies that longstanding parties would be rightly challenged over by the media and the electorate ("Oh, that wasn't us, the Real Democratic Socialist Party. That was the Real Socialist Democratic Party, and they disbanded years ago." "Oh, and where did their members go?" *cough*)

Anon #1