Four things that the UK’s political parties should learn about brand management

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Anna Cotton is head of marketing at Brandworkz.

For today, at least, the brands dominating the UK news are political. While the political parties slug it out in a bid to win voters, it seems that there is still a lot they could learn about brand management.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to boil much of the focus down to the big two, the Conservatives and the Labour Party, our very own political Pepsi and Coke.

Choose what you stand for and be clear about it

Successful commercial brands work out what they do best, define their brand story and control the projection of it. That way, consumers understand what they stand for and can make a choice to buy or not. In politics, the parties risk sounding like each other. Tories and Labour are promising in their main pledges to cut the deficit, cash up the NHS and help minimum wage earners and working parents. Unlike their commercial counterparts, they’re less able to be entirely selective about what they do and to whom they want to appeal, because, right now, they need to appeal to the majority of voters. Apart from Cameron’s promise of a EU referendum and Miliband’s vow to freeze energy prices, the main pledges of the two main parties have both become less distinctive.

Deal with the damage

Political brands don’t have products – they have their people and their policies, both of which are rife with human fallibility. Although commercial brands sometimes have to deal with negative stories too, politicians are at the mercy of their own many gaffes.

One mistake can define and sometimes undo a campaign. Think Ed Miliband’s toe-curling conversation with Russell Brand or his Moses-like inscription of policies on a massive limestone slab, or David Cameron’s apparent admission to Nick Clegg that the Tories won’t get an outright majority. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has effectively counted himself out as a main contender last week by saying that he wouldn’t be walking into Number 10 as PM.

Negative publicity can be overcome – so long as you react quickly and ensure that everyone involved in dealing with the crisis is armed with the same consistent information and approved response. The rule is: accept responsibility where appropriate; reinforce what you stand for; emphasise the positive.

Win trust

Which brings us to trust, vital to winning brand loyalty and, in this case, electoral success. Trust is something that, especially as the elections draw nearer, seems in desperately short supply. David Cameron has made a promise that he’ll pass a law in the first 100 days of a new Tory government to rule out increases in VAT, National Insurance and income tax. Ed Miliband has promised not to go back on his policies if he gets into power (hence engraving them in stone). But can we really believe them?

That magic ingredient

At some point, it’s less about policies and more about how people feel when they hear the words Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, SNP, Ukip and Green. This is partly down to a political party’s recent record in opposition or government, its core message and the trust people have in it, but it’s also about each person’s relationship with that party over the years.

Whether you are in the business of politics or are managing a commercial brand, the same issues apply: keep the message consistent, gain and sustain customer goodwill and respond rapidly to external impacts, both negative and positive.

Anna Cotton is head of marketing at Brandworkz.

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