Theresa May may still be the prime minister (for now, at least) but her previous image as a strong leader has been irrevocably damaged. Watching her election campaign unravel was like watching a car crash slowly through a field of wheat.
If this had been an ad campaign – let’s say for instance the recent Pepsi fiasco – it would have been pulled within a matter of hours. Instead, we had to endure an agonising seven week campaign that failed to find any semblance of genuine human connection. But if we put aside her aloof, detached demeanour (astonishingly maintained post-election too), let’s look at what brands can learn from this campaign – in our industry, we know that at it’s simplest level it comes down to building a connection.
May’s reliance on set piece media appearances made for unnatural and unconvincing performances in front of audiences. To have an impact, brands, like leaders and politicians, simply have to be authentic to have an impact. The Tory campaign strategy centred around a brand promise of the “strong and stable” Theresa May. Yet this just did not ring true. As the manifesto tanked and the campaign looked to be anything but stable, May lacked the humility to admit she had been wrong even as she performed an embarrassing U-turn.
Theresa May already seems like a political anachronism out of touch with the modern day - brand May can surely not recover from this major set back. Brand Corbyn, on the other hand, started by being cast as the cataclysmic leader who would drag Labour down into the abyss. Twenty-five points adrift in the polls and hampered by in-fighting and revolt the only commentary was about if this old comrade would try and hang on to the leadership in the face of the biggest election defeat for Labour in a generation. Weeks later, of course helped by the chaotic Tory campaign, brand Corbyn almost achieved the impossible - closed the gap in the polls and came to be viewed as humble, human and in touch. Rather like Old Spice, once viewed as a jaded and out of date but now seen as fresh and funny, brand Corbyn has performed the ultimate come back.
Why? Well in part because, like the most successful brands, Corbyn put himself on a level with his supporters and the electorate, he out-flanked May by turning up to the leaders debate (albeit last minute), the Labour party manifesto was a list of headline crowd pleasers and in front of the media and public he appeared natural and relaxed. Of course, he was not without his gaffes – the Women’s Hour facade for one – but these only seem to make him more approachable and fallible. Just like us. You may not agree with his politics or his background but in brand terms he came across as agile, engaging and believable. He was targeted and up for the conversation rather than simply broadcasting the same stubborn monologue for weeks on end at no one in particular.
In reality, Corbyn should never have come anywhere close to entering Number 10. As has been widely documented, he’s a protester with a questionable track record as a terrorist sympathiser. He may have all the qualities as I have already described but he was so far behind the Tories in the polls this was Theresa May’s election to lose. And, really she has. Never before have I read so many articles or had so many conversations with friends, colleagues and clients about how misjudged, negative and dull this Conservative campaign was. A hugely missed opportunity in an environment richer than ever with so many ways to engage with the electorate.
Theresa May has damaged her own personal brand, perhaps irreversibly, as she lacked any connection and her campaign was stained with hubris throughout. Her ‘strong and stable’ looks nothing but weak and wobbly now. There’s a lesson for us all in here. What may (no pun intended) have worked in the past - at the last election for instance - does not mean it will work again – in this social and colourful audio visual world we all have to be agile, engaged and above all, be plausible.
Pippa Glucklich is the chief executive of Starcom UK