06 March, 2013

Politics and the art of branding

A recent column from THE HINDU Business Line:


Political parties are brands, and they have to adapt to a new age of marketing.
When we think of brands, we normally think of products as diverse as toothpaste, cars, airlines or banks. However, with national elections looming large next year, there is yet another category of brands that will soon occupy centre-stage. These are political parties, of which we have several in India today. They will woo their target consumers, the voters of India, with huge marketing spends. They will create reams of advertising and wall paintings. Their leaders will travel from town to town in what will perhaps be the largest direct marketing campaigns ever mounted in the country.
Yet the name of this game is changing very fast. Much like brands in the FMCG or consumer durables categories, political brands also have to adapt to a new age, where so much has transformed dramatically over the past few years. Only a decade ago, the telecom revolution was not yet upon us. Today, virtually every voter possesses a mobile phone. Up until a few years ago, Facebook and Twitter had minuscule reach. Today, they drive public opinion and uprising. Look back two decades, and national political brands used to dominate most states in the country. Today, regional political brands with strong local affiliations have sprung up everywhere, which is quite similar to what has happened in many FMCG categories.
So what are the new-age themes that political brands must bear in mind, if they have to win votes? Here is an exploration, from a marketer’s perspective.
Brand proposition: Every brand needs to be built on a strong, differentiated consumer proposition. Through their propositions, brands have to reflect points of parity for the category (for instance, every pack of noodles has to have the ingredients that will make a tasty dish), and also need to have compelling points of difference (Maggi differentiates itself as noodles which can be prepared within a couple of minutes). If we take this concept forward to political brands, we find that in today’s context, the point of parity for every political brand is what the party can offer for economic development, attracting new investments, creating new jobs, redressing poverty. These are no longer points of difference, simply because they are a universal need of most voters, and a political brand that does not offer them, therefore, does not stand a chance. Hence, the point of difference has to arise from an entirely different dimension – which could be commitment to secularism, or championing the needs of a particular region or group, or a track record of excellent performance and administration.
Brand ambassador: Political brands need big and powerful brand ambassadors who can reach out to the masses. These ambassadors have to be smart, telegenic, gifted with the skills of oratory and repartee. This is even more important in today’s age of instant television, where the reach of brand ambassadors is multiplied thousand-fold, and sound bytes rule the hour. Indeed, as points of differentiation between political parties narrow, many more people are likely to decide on their brand selection based on their perceptions of the brand ambassador. That is why no political brand can afford to be without a strong ambassador today. There was an earlier age when political parties could perhaps go into elections without a clear Prime Ministerial candidate, but in the new age this would be suicidal, because people have increasingly come to believe that a CEO is critical to driving the fortunes of the company he or she heads. No wonder there is such a clamour within the BJP and the Congress parties for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to be anointed, well before the elections are called.
Leveraging technology: Political brands that do not learn to powerfully leverage new-age technology can consider themselves dead, particularly in urban India. During the recent US Presidential poll, Barack Obama’s victory owed a lot to the very competent internal technology team that he put in place. This team leveraged an array of applications, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach voters, Chartbeat and Google Analytics to collect and analyse voter data and thereby target specific voter groups. Consider this impressive statistic: a single Obama post on the social media Web site Reddit garnered 3.8 million page views!
Indian political brands have much to learn in this space. They not only need to build their base of social media fans, they also have to explore innovative methods of using the mobile telephone as a medium, given how ubiquitous the cell-phone is in our country. And they should begin fast, well before the run-up to the elections begins.
Youthful brand offering: A brand which retains its youth appeals to modern consumers for whom remaining youthful is an aspirational state. On the other hand, brands which age often fall by the wayside. Brands remain young by investing in innovative new products, contemporary design, attractive packaging and peppy communication. A good example of this is one of the world’s finest brands, Coca-Cola, which has remained perennially youthful for several decades now. This is a lesson that most of our political brands are yet to fully internalise. To remain young in the eyes of voters, they will need young and energetic leaders, fresh new ideas for the nation in at least one or two relevant areas, and communication that speaks in a youthful voice. A tall order, but one worth pursuing, given the potential impact it can have.
Brand slogan: Nike says “Just do it”, Tata Tea exhorts consumers to “Jaago Re”, and McDonald’s tempts children by declaring “I’m loving it”. These are winning brand slogans which are etched in consumers’ minds, and which have helped the respective brands to garner both mindshare and marketshare. Political brands also need equally evocative taglines or slogans, which can become rallying cries for their marketing campaigns and their supporters. Unfortunately, none of our national political parties appear to have such powerful brand taglines today. Several years ago, powerful slogans such as “Garibi Hatao” or “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” reverberated across the country. Where have they gone, and will our political brands rediscover this art in the forthcoming elections? We must once again make reference here to President Obama’s campaign byline in 2008. His slogan of “Yes we can” carried the day, because it was so powerful, yet so simple and memorable.
Authenticity of brands: There is a growing body of research which shows that modern consumers are increasingly drawn to brands with an authentic story, with a sincere commitment to deliver what they promise. Such authenticity helps build enormous trust in an environment where markets are crowded, and where hyperbole is the order of the day. Consumers, therefore, feel safe when they purchase brands which have a clear ring of authenticity. Similarly, political brands will have to deliver an authentic story, built on their beliefs, their track records and clear, unambiguous statements of promise. In today’s world, consumers are often willing to tolerate imperfection or errors committed by the brands they buy, if they are offered total authenticity. Political brands would do well to remember this new-age truth.
By Harish Bhat