Don’t fall for the myth of repositioning

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Last week the media was abuzz with a series of leaked Labour documents that revealed a rare glimpse into the top level strategic thinking that was going on behind the doors of Number 10 during the transition of power from Blair to Brown and the run-up to what was expected to be the 2009 election.

Most eye-catching of all was the concept of “Volvo Brown” and “BMW Cameron” – representing Labour’s apparent realisation that prime minister Gordon Brown’s brand was potentially deficient when compared with his younger, more streamlined rival.

In reality, Project Volvo – as Labour’s 2006 branding initiative was titled – was much deeper and more impressive than last week’s media would have us believe. It would ultimately backfire on Labour, but much of the work conducted by Brown’s chief pollster Deborah Mattinson was brand research of the highest quality.

The project was clear on the market segment it was attempting to understand – floating voters. Project Volvo also used the right methodology. Quantitative research would have been too superficial in its scope and it was still too formative a period in Labour’s election strategy to know what it actually wanted to test. Instead the team used focus groups to provide the insights for the initial strategy with a broader quantitative piece to follow.

And it wasn’t just your usual bland, pointless focus groups. The greatest qualitative tool for understanding a brand is projection, which works on the basis that consumers have strong feelings about brands but they find it hard to articulate or explain them. By asking them to project their feelings onto something and then discuss their selection it’s possible to glean enormous insights into the usually unspoken brand associations held by the target market.

Many modern marketers misunderstand projection. They ask consumers: “If our brand was an animal what kind of animal would it be?” and then dutifully report back that 22% of consumers think we are a squid while 14% believed we were a tiger. This is not projection, this is being a moron. The real key to the method is using the selection to drive discussion: “So, why is the brand like a squid?”

The media last week focused on the superficial allusions that Brown was perceived as a Volvo, a glass of whisky or a bear while David Cameron was seen as a BMW, a spritzer and (my favourite) a big cat. But to the credit of Mattinson, these projections were used as a starting point for the discussion that followed. And it was here that Project Volvo laid out the problems ahead for Brown and his election campaign.

The PowerPoint slides of Project Volvo lay out an even more barren assessment of Brand Brown – one dimensional, few interests outside work, uncomfortable communicator and untidy appearance. The honest and unspun perceptions that helped Brown to supplant an increasingly unpopular Tony Blair were predicted to fall short against Cameron, who was widely seen by the sample as youthful, in touch and likeable.

And here we should pause to reflect on the power of projective research. These observations might seem obvious now, but Project Volvo was completed in February 2006 – half a decade ago. And yet the prescription was, unfortunately for Labour, bang on the money.

Project Volvo goes on to prescribe “urgent action” to address Brand Brown’s shortfalls. The plan calls for a repositioning strategy in which Brown would adopt a “light touch” and “amiable style”. To make him more of the moment, he was to be briefed on popular culture and current trends. And finally he would undergo a “makeover” in which his dress and grooming would improve and he would start a personal fitness campaign.

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If there is one picture that captures the futility of repositioning Brown – and repositioning in general – it is the painful sight of him trudging around Hyde Park on the first of a series of shortlived and ill-conceived jogging sessions. Brown was no jogger, and the media presented the image with his pained expression, ancient running shoes and baggy old jogging pants as evidence that Brown was not quite up to it.

Project Volvo had an enviable grasp of research design, but it had a flawed vision of brand strategy because you cannot turn a Volvo into a BMW. Like too many marketers, Mattinson and her team fell for the myth of repositioning.

Brown was a dour, genuine, dedicated, fastidious, untidy man. The only way to get him re-elected was to play those associations, not attempt to reverse them. A year on from the general election, the Conservatives are in power and the unfortunate hypocrisy of Nick Clegg and the brain numbing emptiness of Ed Miliband occupy our political landscape. In retrospect, many of Brown’s weaknesses, so expertly identified by Project Volvo, now appear to be strengths.

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