Gregor is Coke. Kirk, Pepsi. Forget issues; our politicians are brands

Political branding | BCBusiness

You might think that this great thing called democracy is all about voting for the most qualified candidate or the platform that will best serve you, your family and your community. But you’d be wrong. How the branding of our political process is changing the way we choose our leaders

The ultimate ballot-box question: Is Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson a Tesla or a Car2Go Smart Car?

Is he environmentally chic, ultra-high-tech, but, at $70,000 or more, just too rich for your blood—or anyone’s, really. Or is the leader of the city’s nine-year-old political powerhouse Vision Vancouver party—hoping to be re-elected to a third term on November 15—actually the Smart Car? Economical, efficient—part of the new, savvy, shared-economy world where the motor vehicle as consumer status symbol is a relic of the past?

Can’t decide? What about Kirk LaPointe, then—the untested mayoral candidate aiming to put a new face on the city’s Non-Partisan Association, a party that ruled the city for most of its 77-year existence except the last decade. Is he just another giant Buick, 2014 model? Or is he maybe a Ford Escape hybrid SUV? Practical, big enough for kids and soccer equipment, a little green, a good bargain—something anyone might drive.

These are not frivilous questions. Nor are the ones asking what kind of animal Robertson or LaPointe is, which movie star or what brand of coffee. Voters might think they care deeply about issues, that they will make informed and reasoned choices after carefully studying what every candidate says about the key topics—homelessness, the economy, bike lanes, transparency and accountability, development—but psychologists, marketers, political campaigners and product managers know that isn’t the way the powerful reptilian part of the human brain works. Especially not these days. Everyone is filled with torrents of information, too much to be sorted through or processed rationally. We live in Malcolm Gladwell’s world of Blink. In that world, children who are briefly shown pictures of candidates in elections far away can correctly choose the winner—suggesting that those pictures form the basis for many adult electoral decisions too. We will choose our leaders because they remind us of a movie star we like or they subliminally transmit reliability or they feel like a golden retriever kind of person (and we have a fondness for golden retrievers).

Along with blinking our way to instant judgments, we’ve also become shoppers, not just of cars, but of people—especially politicians. In her recent book on the transformation of Canadian political culture, Shopping for Votes, Ottawa reporter Susan Delacourt unearthed a trend underlying present-day elections. Fifty years ago, 10 to 20 per cent of people used to switch parties between elections. Today, it’s 30 to 40 per cent. We’ve lost our unswerving loyalty to brands, as Sears Canada and BlackBerry have already sadly noted. The brands that continue to dominate—those that have become more powerful and wealthy than many nation states—are the ones that manage to form an evocative relationship with consumers. It’s a relationship filled with blink impressions that make us feel happy, understood, beautiful, living in our ideal world. An Apple world of delight and connection.

“People think a brand is a logo. But it’s not. A brand gets under your skin, it gets you emotionally and you don’t even know it,” says Steve Bengtson, a local consultant who works with Toronto-based BrandSpark International. In the academic world, various scholars define it as “the management of meaning,” “the process of creating identification of a thing to an idea” and “an attempt to create value.”

Robert Levy, the president of BrandSpark, expands on that. When you have a brand, you have a personality that people, particularly the people in your target audience, understand and connect with instantly. That’s of maximum importance in politics, where the jumble of issues and policy talk can overwhelm even educated voters, leaving all of them searching for a quick subliminal cue about where to go—and a sense that someone is speaking directly to them, not to some generic crowd. The candidate “has to figure out who’s his target audience,” says Levy. “You don’t have to appeal to everyone. But you need that 30 to 40 per cent who really dig you.” The most successful political brands are those who can convey what they are in an elevator-pitch moment to their slice of the audience. Outgoing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s “I’m going to stop the gravy train” was all that a swath of fed-up voters needed to know. It’s what a significant proportion of them still care about mostly.

At its most basic, that ability to project a definable, easily understood personality is the mechanism that encourages consumers to identify a difference (and possibly pay more for it) between two products that appear to be superficially the same.

That’s the situation Vancouver voters face Nov. 15, where the shift to politics by branding will play out. Whether by design or accident, the NPA has chosen, in Kirk LaPointe, somebody who looks not that markedly different at first glance from the Gregor Robertson cereal box on the shelf: Two white men, both fit, good-looking, dressed like CEOs, aiming to project managerial competence. (The other boxes on that shelf? Meena Wong, the mayoral candidate from the left-wing COPE party, running a kind of no-logo campaign that’s true to COPE’s deliberate focus on policy and content over branding. And the Green Party of Vancouver, which isn’t running a mayoral candidate but is relying largely on the strength of its global brand to elect a select group of councillors, school trustees and park commissioners.)

The NPA’s then-vice-president, developer Rob Macdonald, acknowledged the importance of marketing when LaPointe’s candidacy was being discussed internally. He hedged about confirming anything before the market launch because “when you’re rolling out a product, you want to roll it out perfectly.” The rollout that aimed to help consumers differentiate started with all kinds of cues for the symbol-readers (a.k.a. journalists). For his first meeting with local media, LaPointe, a long-time management guy for various big Canadian media outlets, chose the ultra-hipster coffee shop on Main Street, Kafka’s. Amid the social-enterprise entrepreneurs and grad students working on their laptops, to the grinding sound of the espresso machine, he said, in visuals and words, that he was not your old-style candidate from the NPA, a party often described as appealing mainly to the professional class residing in Vancouver’s tony west side. He insisted on telling reporters about his tough life as a kid being raised by a single mother. Cool, different, not a privileged martini-drinker from Shaughnessy—check. (His team went back there for a second media op a month later.)

LaPointe started his own blog about the campaign and posted videos of himself talking about the issues, including a journalism-style stand-up on the Arbutus corridor rail line. He’s also been out on Twitter, challenging Robertson on this or that issue. He lards that with conversational comments about pop music, books and sports. So a visual, social-media demonstration that he would be more open, more transparent, more of an information-loving journalism-style politician—check, plus the cool factor reinforced.

“He’s got a strong foundation,” says Levy. “His media credentials are important—he has a dyed-in-the-wool belief in the free press and in access.” The key will be whether he can keep adding to that image, Levy adds, turning into an interactive, conversational Facebook-style politician, demonstrating that he can generate a real dialogue. Long-winded blog posts about his learnings on the campaign trail won’t cut it. His early videos and news releases were aimed right at his target audience: the traditional NPA base of older, home-owning professionals who live in the most suburban parts of the city. That over-35 crowd that drives SUVs, wants value for money and abhors inefficiency. LaPointe’s hashtag, #greatcitybadlyrun, speaks directly to a group of people who are enraged by litter, unmowed city parks, any sign of fiscal sloppiness—a lack of order. He’s also clearly working to pick up secondary markets of people who feel marginalized in the city: the shrinking community around the Punjabi market, seniors in southeast Vancouver.

Of course, the branding of LaPointe has two hurdles to overcome. One is that the party LaPointe is running with has a much more established image than he does, one he might not be able to get out from under. “You can’t expect one person to be the brand ambassador,” says pollster Mario Canseco. “There’s a difficulty becoming the independent or a voice for change when the party itself didn’t go through a proper rebranding.” And then the Vision Vancouver team—the people who framed NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan as the root cause of a months-long garbage strike and who made sure NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner never got a chance to define a new image for his party—will be working hard to create its own brand for LaPointe: a gas-guzzling old NPA Oldsmobile, belching out smoke and being driven by someone with a learner’s licence. It was clear by mid-September where Vision was going with LaPointe, working to rebrand him as a guy who’s fumbling his way through policy, who’s analyzing and considering and holding meetings but not really coming out with anything. Weak.

In contrast, Vision’s team will focus on a Robertson image as an experienced, decisive leader and keep blaring out the cloud of words that push the hot buttons for his target audience. Who are they? Almost everyone under 35, Vision operatives claim. A Chinese community that has an affinity for the strong-leader image. The city’s many enviro-liberals, who value lifestyle and natural and green above many other things. No, the brand message will emphasize, you don’t like everything Robertson does or even the way he does it. But he’s getting them done: rental apartments, bike lanes, opposition to oil tankers, a plan for the Downtown Eastside, a new green building code. His team will have one advantage: they’ve been branding him for years already in a way that has made him even stronger than the party he’s twice led to victory. Robertson is green, he rides his bike, he ran a successful organic-juice company, and he champions the new wave of green, tech-savvy local businesses.

Vision has also copied a couple of successful ideas from elsewhere. One, it has capitalized on the ultimate branding strategy, which is to create an experience for people rather than tell them how great you are. Political science professor Eleanora Pasotti, at the University of California in Santa Cruz, has written a book about how new progressive mayors in former machine-politics cities have gained traction in the late 20th century. “They didn’t say ‘Vote for me and you’ll get a reward.’ They put on festivals. They built parks. They sponsored concerts,” says Pasotti. “Those experiences create a notion of togetherness, of a community. So you think, ‘I feel good about this mayor.’” That’s something the Vision team, which has championed car-free street festivals, food trucks, farmers’ markets, fundraisers disguised as art-gallery parties and the mayor as star DJ at local clubs, has mastered—and it’s far more powerful than blasting voters with speeches and policy platforms to get them to vote for you. “It’s a subtle and undermining instrument,” says Pasotti. “You have the logo, the slogans, the imagery, but it’s really anchored in experience.”

Vision has also copied the micro-marketing style made famous by the Obama 2008 campaign in the States and also by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. In the first nine months of 2014, anyone on Vision’s exhaustive mailing list has received over a dozen mass emails, personally addressed, that invite feedback or donations or sign-ups on specific topics: tanker traffic, transit, homelessness, the Pride parade. People who respond to one message, but not another, will find themselves in a special place on the database, so that people who care about homelessness will get more messages that talk specifically about homelessness and those who care about tankers, tankers.

But Robertson and Vision are going to have to fight a new guerrilla strategy brought over from the world of anti-corporate activism: the anti-brand campaign. In the business world, corporate brands are taking serious hits from well-crafted anti-brand websites. “These websites exchange information, organize boycotts and coordinate lawsuits with the help of social media platforms as they retake control of a brand’s messaging, which can in the long-term be harmful to a brand’s reputation,” Klaudia Karwowski, a German specialist in this new form of consumer activism, wrote last August in a blog run by the global Duffy Agency. Vision’s many opponents have been using a lot of the same tactics as those fighting Apple and Nike, with negative twists on Vision slogans (Engaged City becomes Enraged City), lawsuits and the constant repetition of new catch phrases ($25,000 lunches for the developer-backed party) turning the brand upside-down. Vision’s new image: In the clutches of developers and their money. Secretive. Arrogant. Unwilling to listen to communities. So fixated on bike lanes that they don’t care about whether anyone else can get through the city.

What gives that rebranding extra oomph is that it doesn’t come overtly from the NPA. Instead, it’s activists and a network of community groups spreading the meme—a meme the NPA is poised to take advantage of.

There’s one final piece of the branding puzzle for mayoral candidates in particular. The ones who achieve the greatest success, become the best known, are those who seem to personify their city—or what the residents of that city aspire to be. Dianne Watts, in Surrey, has been the quintessential blend of suburban Real Housewives style with a layer of contemporary coolness: a Buddhist, a one-time backpacking world adventurer—a person who wanted Surrey to become a cosmopolitan city. In Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, running his election campaigns through social media, personifies a new Calgary that is more than just cowboy hats and oil: Muslim, a professor with a PhD, funny and flamboyant. But he also incorporates into his projected image parts of the old Calgary that people are hungry for, as he tweets out endless messages about community events and lost pets that evoke the city as a smaller town where neighbours helped each other. In the 2002 civic election, former coroner Larry Campbell embodied a Vancouver many people wanted the city to become: compassionate but realistic about its many residents with drug problems. For the last six years, Robertson has been the symbol of what many people take Vancouver to be: a bike-lovin’, oil-tanker hatin’, techie, startup, digital city. But maybe the voters in this city—which can sometimes surprise Lotusland mockers with the lesser-known, conservative side of its personality—have a different idea of their Vancouver.

Oh, and, by the way, on the car thing. Rob Ford, who should be a man-of-the-people Chevrolet guy, drives a Cadillac Escalade SUV. Gregor Robertson, when not on his bike, drives a Volkswagen Jetta—the safe, middle-of-the-road, reliable car that he seems slightly embarrassed about. LaPointe says his favourite car of all time was the Mini Cooper he drove for seven years, until his stepdaughter grew out of the backseat’s legroom. At the moment, he’s driving a rather hefty corporate car, an Audi S4 A-line. But it’s not really him, he says. He’ll be ditching it as soon as he’s out of the lease.

What the hue of your poster says about you and your party

PURPLE: It’s the new colour for the party that’s trying to take down the blue of Vision Vancouver. Irrelevant you say? In a study called “The Impact of Color in Marketing,” published in the non-flaky journal Management Decisions, researchers determined that people make up their minds about products within 90 seconds of viewing. And between 62 and 90 per cent of their decision is based on the colours they see. Marketers warn, however, that the colour has to match the essential brand personality—sincere, sophisticated, competent, rugged, exciting—of the product. So what is that colour purple whispering? Sophistication is one association that pops up persistently in studies. Luxury, creativity, quality are others. Think Yahoo, Purdy’s chocolates, Cadbury, Hallmark, Craigslist. The downside? Purple is linked, for some people, with arrogance and excess. Also, it’s a least-favourite colour for men, although women like it.

BLUE: So what about the blue of Vision? Yes, they did nab the colour that banks and American Democrats love. Its associations: calmness (sky, water), stability, success, authority. (Downside: Can seem icy, cold, melancholy.) It’s the most popular colour for both men and women, which is probably why companies from IBM to Twitter to GE to RBC have chosen it as their defining brand colour.

GREEN: And the Greens? Name, brand and colour perfectly aligned. The earth, organics, nature, growth. Starbucks and TD Canada Trust, it’s true. And associated with money and jealousy. But also Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Happy Planet. ‘Nuff said.

YELLOW: COPE’s yellow? Optimistic, cheerful. McDonald’s, Best Buy and IKEA, on the one hand. The No Name brand, on the other. (Downside: Used for danger signs, can seem too lightweight.)