Tories take up torch of rebranding task

It would be simple to believe that policy is all political parties care about in the quest for votes. But ever since John F Kennedy was elected US president in 1960, and Ronald Reagan brought his Hollywood background to the White House 20 years later, leaders have increasingly relied on image to gain or maintain power. Advertising was a central element of campaigning even before the Saatchis’ famous “Labour Isn’t Working” slogan. Now it appears branding has become as important to parties as their policies.

Tory leader David Cameron has boosted his party’s branding attributes by hiring former advertising executive Anna-Maren Ashford from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R (MW last week), and speculation is mounting over the future direction of the Conservatives’ image. Will it choose the oak tree logo being tested among members but branded “tired” by Michael Peters, the man who created the torch synonymous with the Thatcher era?

A more pressing question might be whether the party becomes obsessed with image rather than the substance that ought to be behind any election victory. When Tony Blair revealed New Labour in 1994, he simultaneously did away with public ownership promise Clause 4, and modernised the party’s image and policy in one fell swoop. At this moment, there is no such radical shift in core Conservative beliefs, and so any new logo may appear superficial to opponents and the media alike. Whether Cameron will opt to bolster the logo by unveiling changes at the heart of the Tories’ ethos remains to be seen.

Judging by Peters’ comments, the old guard are resistant to an image overhaul. Bloggers on Conservativehome.com are already divided. “You cannot keep changing livery without contaminating your brand”, says one. This concern among the faithful is at odds with Tory chairman Francis Maude’s recent claim that the rebranding process is “not occupying more than a fraction of our timeâ¦it really isn’t of huge importance”.

The fact that a party source also admits it is “getting its brand right” before announcing policies shows how critical image, and the marketing of that image, is to parties these days. Blair worked on policy before the public unveiling of New Labour, and as another worried Tory blogger states, “the brand must be built on authentic values of the party”.

On the one hand, experts contend that an obsession with image comes at the expense of policy – certainly a fear at the grass roots if the bloggers are to be believed. But on the other hand, as parties strive for joined-up government, the brand can become the bedrock of the whole organisation, say commentators. Party branding is proving essential as it becomes more difficult to slip a cigarette paper between the stances of Britain’s two main parties.

It is a fact of modern political life that Opposition leaders accept rebranding is necessary to shift perceptions of a party’s image, as well as policies, in the pursuit of power. If elected, the brand that showcased policy tends to be disregarded or – as Labour has occasionally found to its cost – used to measure performance against promises. Ultimately, a political brand can become a stick to beat a drifting government with in times of crisis.

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