Last night I attended an event at the House of Commons run by Red Shift, a group of English Labour MPs and activists who are trying to focus the party’s minds on how Labour needs to change and behave in order to be successful in England in the 2020 general election.
Earlier in the day Red Shift had released a report on 'Brand Labour', and the event was an invitation to listen to Richard Huntington, group chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi and Peter Souter, chairman of TBWA, talk about the state of Labour’s brand and approach to communication.
The organisation has clearly been making waves in Westminster, as on a wet and windy Monday night in early January, the committee room was packed with an eager audience that included Tristram Hunt MP and Peter Kellner, president of YouGov.
Both Huntington and Souter have had experience working as the Labour Party’s advertising agency. Saatchi & Saatchi was responsible for the celebrated ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ poster in 2007 and continued to advise Gordon Brown throughout the 2010 general election. TBWA was the Labour Party’s ad agency for the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections – Souter amusingly claimed that for that period TBWA stood for ‘Tony. Blair. Wins. Again’ – and also produced work for Labour under Ed Miliband.
Souter opened proceedings by asking a member of the audience to participate and did the old throwing lots of actual tennis balls at them trick in order to make a point about the need for communications to be single-minded (incredibly, and much to Souter’s chagrin, the audience member caught four out of the five tennis balls thrown).
Souter then shared a series of films – including Bill Clinton’s job score speech, the Great Schlep and Climate Name Change – and followed each with a lesson the Labour Party could learn from the references. One of Souter’s reccurring themes was the need to use strategic 'judo' to reposition Labour’s brand in the mind of the electorate.
In using this phrase, Souter reiterated one of the important lessons contained in the report: in order to communicate a sense of change to the public, the party needs to take surprising and counterintuitive moves on salient issues.
An example of this 'judo' from Labour’s past is Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” pledge in 1995. Blair made the argument for robust policing – traditionally a Conservative strength – using rhetoric which left-wingers would sympathise with. In doing so, Blair encouraged reappraisal from those who previously rejected Labour for being 'soft on crime' without alienating his socially liberal base.
This sort of counterintuitive brand positioning has been badly lacking from Labour’s offering in the past 10 years. Indeed, one contributor to the Red Shift report was (anonymously) quoted as saying: "I have not seen a Labour politician stand up and say something counter-intuitive, surprising or brave for at least eight years."
However the real highlight of Souter's presentation came at its conclusion when he boldly proposed a new organising thought and strapline for the party: “Labour. For the many.” It’s so rare that speakers at Westminster events, such as this, have the bravery to put forward a new idea; the assembled group of MPs, lobbyists, pollsters and activists seemed to genuinely appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the pitch.
Next up was Richard Huntington who argued that successful brands have four qualities: 1. A clear purpose. 2. Authenticity. 3. Performance. 4. Energy.
He made the point that having 1 and 2 alone was not enough by citing the fact that whilst everyone remembers Blockbuster video fondly, no one has bought anything from there in years following the store's demise. For those in the room carrying a membership card for another organisation which also hasn't had much luck with the British public recently, this was a particularly sobering point.
Huntington proposed an articulation of Labour’s brand purpose as being "to champion the health of society and to build the trust between people that fosters collective growth" which was met with plenty of furious nodding by the audience.
He then went one step further and proposed that the party brings this purpose to market by talking about "how 'we' helps 'me'". The stated ambition for the phrase was to try and tap into the electorate's sense of collectivism whilst also appealing to people's individual desire for a better life.
It's certainly pithy enough to stick in voters' minds and is as good an articulation for social democracy in the 21st century as I've heard.
On the topic of Labour's authenticity, Huntington suggested that one positive aspect of Corbyn's leadership has been a much-needed injection of realness into the Labour brand.
However, that is where the compliments for JC started and finished, as Huntington pointed out that the two areas where Labour's brand was currently incredibly vulnerable were 'performance' and 'energy'.
'Performance', in this sense, relates to the expectation that a brand will fulfil its promise; the product or service will deliver for the consumer. And 'energy' relates to the relevance the brand has to 'real life today' and the extent to which a brand holds a motivating point of view about what the future holds.
Huntington concluded by saying that the Labour brand was not broken – people know what the values of the Labour Party are and many sympathise with them – but the brand is certainly not in rude health or relevant to the modern day.
He hinted that the key to success was finding a way – possibly through greater association with the digital-sharing economy – to re-establish Labour as a platform that will deliver community and collaboration in order to enable individuals to fulfil their potential.
However, the hope and enthusiasm that the two speakers had generated was quickly brought into question by YouGov's Kellner who pointed out from the floor that even the best articulation of the Labour brand would be in vain while the product the party was trying to sell was the automotive equivalent of a Trabant and the Conservatives have a Mercedes-Benz on offer.
Regardless, I’m eagerly anticipating the next offering from Red Shift. A group of Labour politicians who are proactively trying to rebuild the party's brand and have the humility to ask for advice from London's creative community need all the encouragement we can offer.