GE 2019: lessons for political branding

The 2019 UK General Election is a good example of political ‘brands’ contesting their position on differing levels. Not only was it a contest between political parties, each promoting their political brand position, it was also a contest between the party leaders and their personal brands. When reflecting upon the 2019 General Election, three key lessons about political branding become apparent:

The importance of a brand positioning that is clear and in sympathy with electoral sentiment

This was probably the most apparent lesson learned about political brands in the 2019 General Election. The two parties that succeeded most, the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP), had leaders that advocated a clear brand position (Brexit and Scottish independence respectively) and it was one that their target market sympathised with. In contrast, whilst the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson also advocated a clear position, the resolute ‘revoke’ stance sat uncomfortably with many of her usual supporters who felt it undemocratic to simply cancel the result of the Brexit Referendum.

The clear stance adopted by the Conservatives, SNP and Liberal Democrats stood in sharp contrast to the apparently conflicted position adopted by The Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s purposefully neutral stance to Brexit contrasted sharply with the position held by senior figures within the Labour Party who supported a ‘remain’ stance toward the EU. Moreover, their communication strategy appeared fragmented as a number of initiatives and policies were proposed but a coherent vision to draw them together wasn’t communicated well. As a result, the positioning of both the party and the leader appeared to lack definition, consistency and direction.

It’s important to have a profile but all publicity is not necessarily good publicity

During the election it became clear that whilst media exposure was valuable, it was equally important that exposure should be positive. The refusal of ITV to allow Liberal Democrat Party leader Jo Swinson to take part in their Leaders’ Debate undermined the credibility of her claim as a potential Prime Minister in waiting. Compounded by a poor performance on the BBC Question Time Leaders’ Debate and limited coverage of her day-to-day campaigning, Swinson’s message struggled to gain traction and both her approval rates and voting intentions for the party plummeted.

Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn also suffered embarrassing media incidents. Jeremy Corbyn received savage treatment at the hands of the BBC’s Andrew Neil whilst Boris Johnson was openly laughed at by the audience during the BBC Question Time Special. Both leaders suffered confrontations by members the public and there was some nervousness on the part of party managers as to how the leaders, and particularly Johnson (who had a reputation as a loose cannon) might respond. As a result, there were a number of instances where the two leaders either refused to attend events/interviews or sent proxies in their place. Clearly it was felt that the ridicule suffered as a result of a non-appearance would be preferable to potential damage that might come out of difficult questioning or an unsupportive audience response.

The importance of ‘likeability’

‘Likeability’, or lack of it, appeared to be a determining factor over the course of the election. It has already been noted that Jo Swinson struggled to gain approval following poor media performances but Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn also appeared to suffer from a lack of likability. Media reports suggested that voters simply didn’t warm to him and this was not helped by some rather ill-tempered responses when questioned about his leadership or ability to deal with anti-Semitism within the party. In contrast, the Conservative Party appeared much more successful in cultivating their leader’s likability. Repeated questioning suggested there were clearly issues around trust but these were minimised by legitimising his unconventional and slightly comic persona with the use of novel and engaging media opportunities. Examples of note include the creation of a parody of the film ‘Love Actually’ entitled ‘Brexit Actually’ and a visit to the JCB factory where numerous photo opportunities were created when Johnson crashed a bulldozer through a wall of bricks.

In summary, it was clear that the winners in the 2019 UK General Election were those that adopted a clear brand positioning strategy. Ambiguity and/or neutrality on the part of a party or its leader was not well received. However, as we can see from the winners in this election, it wasn’t enough to have a clear position, the position also had to be one that was defensible and communicated by a leader that the electorate liked, if not trusted.