The party is over: political branding makes way for the personal

Think what you like about Donald Trump, but while you’re at it, remember that he’s the guy who occupies the one seat that matters: the president’s desk in the White House. He’s the one who got himself elected there. People voted for him. Why?

Not because he was a Republican (though maybe even because he set himself apart from his fellow Republicans). No, people voted for Donald Trump because he was Donald Trump. They went for him because they just liked him better than Hillary Clinton. That’s the bottom line. It’s the new reality. In today’s world people vote for the person they can connect with, not for parties that try to lure them with hollow promises. In politics, as in business, it is the person who’s become the brand of choice.

Become your own party

Halfway through the 90s in Italy, then clogged by unmovable political machinery, media tycoon Silvia Berlusconi started transforming himself from well-known business billionaire to outspoken political figure. Already popular because of his success as president of AC Milan and aided by his own media, he built his own party (in every sense of the word): Forza Italia. And he was always the biggest of both brands. He made politics as personal as could be and did what any strong brand does: he bonded with proud Italians. He showed himself to be one of them, even if he was a billionaire and they had nothing. He was the Ferrari they would never own, but now they could at least come along for the ride.

Forza Italia became a force to be reckoned with and Berlusconi became prime minister. After he had come and gone, Beppe Grillo, in all respects Berlusconi’s counterpart, stepped in to fill the void. A comedian by trade, a charismatic orator, immensely popular with the younger crowd. He got MoVimento 5Stelle (M5S) off the ground, a political party–cum–online movement. The movement gained momentum by relentlessly challenging the old ways of Italian politics, capturing the new online crowd of youth without hope or future.

Grillo positioned M5S as the breath of fresh air that Italy desperately needed, and today we find them sharing a government with Matteo Salvini’s Lega, a party driven by his charisma leading the way as a radical anti-immigration brand. Populist? Certainly. Does it matter? Not at all. It is a key element in the success of political brands. These people became so strong as brands that they could build a whole new party around themselves. That is still a rare feat. It takes guts, perseverance and stamina, and don’t think people like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs built their empires any differently.

In the Netherlands we witnessed the rapid rise of Pim Fortuyn. A professor, highly sophisticated, in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar, author of several books on society: on the face of it not exactly someone that ordinary folk would gravitate towards. But they did. Massively. Because he bonded with them emotionally. He formed his party, LPF, with himself as head and was on his way to becoming prime minister when an animal rights activist shot him dead the day before the elections. Without him, the LPF went down in flames. The party died with him.

In France, Emmanuel Macron headed a movement-cum-party called En Marche (on our way) and as an alternative to the moribund socialist party and Marie Le Pen’s nationalist party. It was perfect timing to get to market. En Marche he did, and it landed him in the president’s chair on the Elysée. Since then, however, he has been accused of not delivering what he promised and favouring the rich over the average working French people who voted for him.

For any brand, defaulting on promises made is asking for trouble. Without Macron’s personal brand, En Marche will come to a standstill and disperse.

Personal branding, because you can

We will see many more candidates trying to shape themselves into brands strong enough to battle for a decisive place in politics. There are several reasons for this:

Growing demand. People want change. Ever since Obama, change has become the buzzword. Exactly what this change should look like or what it should entail, no one really knows. But people want it anyway. They are calling for change and they are prepared to listen to anyone with a story that somehow speaks of change. There is a big demand out there, so who’s up next?

Media access. Today’s world is made for personal branding. Why crawl from one provincial town hall to the next if you can build your personal brand on a smart social media strategy? Vlog, blog, tweet, take Insta by storm, make friends on Facebook, make the most of any platform to put your proposition forward. If there is still one thing that’s democratic, it’s the way anyone can present themselves as the bearer of fresh ideas.

Leadership void. In the political marketplace of many countries, there are hardly any leading brands left. In Germany, Angela Merkel is still around but has lost a lot of love since her “Wir schaffen das” proposition. The UK has Theresa May, but in reality it is mayhem that rules Britannia. Throughout Europe there are few people who are likeable enough to build the groundswell of support a brand needs to lead. There is an open playing field for anyone who dares step up to the mirror and decide that the next prime minister of his country is looking back at him or her.

Professional help. The moment someone starts getting noticed for his or her views and appearance, there will always be someone stepping up to offer support, either financially or with all kinds of professional advice on media, communication, marketing, speechwriting, party organisation and so forth. Personal branding needs more people than one, but specialists aren’t that hard to find. The hard part is selecting the ones who aren’t secretly out to increase their brand capital at the expense of their client’s. In that respect, politics will always be the same no matter who you are.

Personal branding: Does it suit you?

Most politicians seem to lose a lot of what makes them a unique as soon as they really get involved in politics. Political parties are populated by a lot of sullen souls following party orders and trying to not step out of line. This is not what you want if you’re aspiring to become a great personal political brand.

In politics, it is not your intellectual talent or your network or nodding your head to whatever the right people say that will make you a potential leader. Can you, as an individual, become the best and biggest brand of the lot? Because that’s what it’s all about. If you don’t think you can, well, make the most of what you can do somewhere on the backbench. But bury your hopes of millions of people voting for you. But if you still want to have a go, here are a few pointers that may help you become that brand.

1. Develop your political brand fast

Philip Kotler, one of the most distinguished professors of international marketing, defined a personal brand as “a seller’s promise to deliver consistently a specific set of features, benefits and services related to their own skills and ability”. Is this definition sufficient for a personal brand to be victorious in politics too? Politics is not a normal world. The scrutiny any new face has to endure in the limelight is terrifyingly harsh. Things you did as a kid will be up from anywhere that comes in handy in order to paint a different picture of you. Nonsense or not, it doesn’t matter. Relevant or not, it doesn’t matter. The moment a newcomer tries to carve out a piece of the market, there will be others sharpening their knives.

In that respect it is similar to new brands challenging market leaders in business. With one big difference: in business it won’t be painfully personal. A normal brand represents a product or a service. It is not married, doesn’t have a wife, a partner, children, a real life. A personal brand does, and this puts you in a vulnerable position. Normal brands have the luxury of a little more time to develop their brand, enhance their positioning, activate their brand, forge bonds with clients, establish their brand name and anchor its values. Personal brands are attacked the moment they raise their voice, often viciously. You will have to establish yourself and do it in the shortest amount of time possible. Gaining momentum as fast as possible and gathering a broad following as soon as possible will make it harder for the opposition to crush you at an early stage.

2. Own your voice

Consistently developing your set of features and benefits: of course, but make sure you also go out there and get noticed very loudly and very clearly to as broad an audience as you can find. It is essential to distinguish yourself, which is a challenge in its own right. In general people aren’t big on politics – or politicians, for that matter – and they have lost their belief in the system as a whole as well in the politicians themselves. This low interest level alone makes stepping up as the most personal politician any politician can be the crucial step.

People, voters, will only place their trust in those they know and with whom they can share values and emotions. Create the most authentic self you can muster and yourself out there in the most likeable way you can. Don’t hold back, forget about nuance: put your proposition out there in no uncertain terms. Challenge the people, parties or issues you know people have a problem with too. Set your agenda from the word go. Tweet like a Trump (although maybe a little more consistency wouldn’t hurt). People want to be struck by someone straightaway. They want to be bowled over by someone “who is not afraid to speak his mind” or “who is saying exactly what I’ve been thinking for a long time now”.

Making a great first impression is the mark of a successful brand, and things are no different for a personal political brand. Own your voice, own your story, own the story of the day, own what’s trending.

3. Every politician is a populist

Politicians don’t get anywhere if they can’t connect with a large majority of people. There is just no way to become a political brand if you don’t package your message in easy-peasy one-liners and plain language. But wait – isn’t it the content that counts? It sure does, but that’s for later. And even then only for the opinion makers or the people who like to count themselves among the better informed.

Fact is, there are more of the less informed and you need them to vote for you. It is inescapable: every politician needs to be populist. Let them call you one. It is the first sign you’re getting on the establishment’s nerves and probably that you are about to endanger their positions. The people won’t care – really, they won’t. They are looking for personalities and personalities don’t talk in circles, they talk sense in clear lines.

Translate even the most difficult and complex matters into a message that the average man or woman on the street can understand. The moment you do, they appreciate you for it. They’ll see it as a sign of respect for the common man. They have the right to understand what they might need to understand to cast their vote. Being straightforward is a key part of personal political branding. Why hide who you are behind standard political language?

4. Be open and authentic first and foremost

A personal brand will never be a personal brand if it walks and talks like the rest. Life has become one great, big, ongoing reality show, and politicians will have to go along with that. Honestly showing who you are as a human being will already grow you as a personal politician. It says a lot to people when a politician shares his or her personal views on life and everyday things like shopping, spending, saving, schools, etc. You don’t have to go all the way and reveal intimate details – that would only invite the risk of ridicule.

In the Netherlands, Jesse Klaver, a young Trudeau-like leader of a left-wing green party, appeared in pyjamas decorated with little acorns. Now, more than a year later, he is still mocked because of it. Open up as you would to a next-door neighbour you’ve known for several years; be frank about what you want and what you are about. Personal branding doesn’t mean creating an image of yourself that only partly fits the bill. It would even be sensible to mention one or two unfortunate mishaps in your earlier life at a reasonably early stage. This would only add to a more trustworthy, honest and human personal brand. People will accept it, as we are all human and all humans happen to make silly mistakes.

5. Don’t spin

No one’s perfect, it’s as simple as that. So stay away from anyone who calls himself a spin doctor, because he’s not out to enhance who you really are as a person but to make you appear as someone else, preferably in line with the party image. But no one can be someone else for long, and certainly not if will be under scrutiny of the media, political opponents and even jealous colleagues inside the party.

Personal branding is not about spinning a tale; it is about painting a picture of yourself as you are. Enlarged and enhanced, yes, but not fake. You need to make the most of who you are as a person if you want to be liked, admired, followed and talked about by enough people to vote you into a position where you can make a difference. This is the one thing you have to keep in mind. The moment you decide you could actually make a difference in people’s lives, there is no other way to go than with the authentic package called You.

6. Do. Not. Lie.

Not once. Not a little. Not ever. Not about your past. Not about what you promised. Not about what you discussed with people from your party. People don’t just suspect that politicians have a knack for lying about stuff, people know they do because they have seen it happen all too often. Big brands don’t lie. They cannot afford to lie because it would ruin their reputation, estrange them from their buyers and ultimately put them out of business. So behave like a big brand. Speak your mind, but do not lie. You never know – voters may even start to believe in you.

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group