Times Online: Keep plugging away. The brand is a winner

March 10, 2010

Keep plugging away. The brand is a winner

Tories think that the job of changing their party’s image is complete. It isn’t – and complacency could be fatal

Daniel Finkelstein

In 1915 the Coca-Cola company decided that it needed to do something about its bottles. The firm’s bottlers were complaining. They felt that the straight-sided containers they were using weren’t distinctive enough. So Coca-Cola set a challenge to glass manufacturers. Could someone out there come up with a better bottle?

Yes, was the answer. The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, proposed the swirling, curved ‘contour’ bottle. It became, and remains, one of the most recognisable and best-loved brand icons. And Martin Lindstrom, the brand guru and author of the book Buyology, thinks he knows why. The Coca-Cola bottle is, he says, ‘smashable’.

If you drop the famous Coke bottle on the ground, and it smashes into a hundred pieces, you would be able to pick up just one of them and still recognise what it is. Lindstrom lists some other brands of which the same is true. A bit of a Harley-Davidson, a scrap of an iPod, a drop of Guinness, Lego. These brands are all smashable.

But the Conservatives? I suspect there’s only one sense in which anyone thinks they are smashable, and it’s not Lindstrom’s.

A smashable brand is consistent, the same through and through. Its values guide every part of the design, its identifying features suffuse everything, there isn’t a detail that is left out, that isn’t true to the whole. And all appeal to the emotions. One study, using brain scans, shows that smashable brands light up the same part of the brain as religious imagery.

These brands share something else. Their owners understand that there is much more to their appeal than one simple function, however good that function might be. In fact consumers purchase the product as much for what it says about them, and how it makes them feel, as for what it does. The product is much more than functional, it is part of their identity.

You can divide the last five years, or even fifteen years, in politics into two sorts of period. You can divide it into the periods when the Conservatives have remembered and cared about their brand and the periods when they haven’t. Periods when they have understood the need to build a consistent and coherent picture in voters minds of who they are, and periods when they have doubted the necessity, or have believed the job done, or have chased other goals. And I believe that you can divide the periods in one other way. The periods when they have cared about their brand and been successful, and periods when they haven’t cared and have not been successful.

Now the election campaign is upon David Cameron’s Conservatives, and the polls are closing, and the leadership team has a choice. What sort of period is the next two months going to be?

To anyone who doubts this account, I recommend a superb new history of the last decade in Tory politics, published this week. Peter Snowdon’s meticulous narrative, Back from the Brink, records the highs and lows of the party both before and after David Cameron captured the leadership.

As Snowdon records, one of the events that propelled Mr Cameron into the leader’s chair was the presentation to the 2005 Tory conference of opinion research on the Conservative brand. Tory immigration policy garnered significantly less support the moment voters were informed which party supported it. Informing voters that the immigration policy they had just been asked about belonged to Labour made no difference to their support. The brand problem was confined to the Conservatives.

The party faithful realised what this meant and chose a leader who might alter perceptions. And in a hectic, but hugely successful, period after David Cameron became leader, his team concentrated on just that task. Everything – policy initiatives with Bob Geldof, photocalls with huskies, being seen out biking, dropping health policies that seemed to favour opting out of the system, shifting Tory attitudes on issues like gay rights – was geared to make the party, and particularly its leader, seem different.

These Tories, the message was intended to say, are modern, energetic, determined, tolerant, they listen, they are at ease with today’s Britain. They understand that people are fed up with knockabout politics as usual. They support public services, particularly the NHS, they will protect the low-paid and they understand that, as Mr Cameron put it early on, “we’re all in this together”.

The Tories are still living on the capital from this spell. But every so often, they forget. They start thinking they have changed the brand already, that the work has been done. They have self-indulgent little rows, as they did over grammar schools. They coast. They start wondering if they need a retail offer to the public, some big (probably expensive and therefore impossible) initiative. They lose sight of the fact that their best moments (Mr Cameron’s speech without notes and his response on expenses, George Osborne’s big calls on taxes and debt and spending) have been when they have been reinforcing their new brand.

Politicians and pundits alike overestimate the impact that individual policy initiatives have on voters. Focus-group research suggests that most voters don’t know what “Whitehall” is or what “hung Parliament” means. The BBC has done research which shows that the term backbencher is lost on those watching its news bulletins. All that gets through is very broad messages about the character of a party, about who it is, about its brand. And this is transmitted in many ways big and small, but particularly through pictures and spontaneous public appearances.

The old negatives that dogged the Tories – that they will cut the NHS, get rid of tax credits, favour the rich over the poor, the South over the North – dog them still. They, and particularly David Cameron, have made some progress in persuading people that the party has changed. But not enough. And certainly not enough to stop plugging away at the message. Every day. All the time.

Eighty two per cent of people think it is time for a change. Less than half say they will vote Conservative. The voters are out there to give the Tories a landslide, but the party needs to help them over the finish line. They just need to show a bit of (Coca-Cola) bottle.


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