Will Brand Boris stand the test of time?

Crikey! Whatever next? With the new incumbent settled into City Hall, now seems an appropriate moment to appraise Brand Boris. And what better way than the tried and tested SWOT analysis?

No doubt about it, Brand Boris has achieved near universal awareness. Which is more than you can say about most politicians. How many of the world’s mayors (outside Mayor Bloomberg) can you spontaneously recall? Come to think of it, how many members of the cabinet, or shadow cabinet? Brand Boris’ universality is all the more extraordinary when considering its unpromising niche origins: Old Etonian, Young(ish) Fogey, former editor of the Spectator, MP for Henley-on-Thames.

The explanation for this conundrum is to be found in television or, rather, constant exposure to it. Boris is a highly successful example of branded content. Maverick antics and a predictable tendency to say the unpredictably shocking make him compelling viewing, whatever the floor-show: Have I got News for You, the Tory Party Conference, election hustings.

Of course, anyone can achieve temporary traction across all demographics if they are unscrupulous or reckless enough. Look at Jade Goody and Hoover. Fortunately Boris has so far resisted the temptation to relaunch himself on Big Brother, and been unusually circumspect in not making rash election pledges he can’t fulfill. For instance, no more bendy buses? OK, what he probably meant was no more will be funded. Judged by the rugged track-record of the Routemaster, we’ll see the existing fleet’s ageing carcasses hauling themselves around the capital for the next 20 years.

Nonetheless, this cannot disguise a serious flaw in the brand DNA. It appears to lack a USP.

It’s true that brands have from time to time successfully adopted the strategy of negative reinforcement. For example, Audi – a German car that is not a BMW; and Nationwide – a bank whose service appeal lies in the proposition that is not as bad as other banks. But for Boris to base himself on the idea that he is not Brand Ken sounds distinctly short-sighted. Adopting ‘me-too’ tactics to acquire the second-round vote (I’m an electable Brand Brian) won’t wash either. Sooner or later Brand Boris will have to demonstrate a more defined market appeal in order to get re-elected.

What might his Big Idea be? Well, nothing to do with bendy buses. Still less more community policemen on the beat. Boris’ idea of sacking top cop Sir Ian Blair and taking more control of the Met definitely has popular appeal, but it isn’t thought out. People may like the idea of more law and order, but they won’t want to pay for it (frankly, the alternative idea of slashing Met ad budgets to help fund extra officers sounds arithmetically ludicrous). Just as much to the point, Brand Boris will become over-extended and unfocused if it spends too much time chairing the Metropolitan Police Authority.

Fortunately, Brand Ken has left an important legacy which it was unable to exploit in the rancorous atmosphere surrounding the closing stages of the mayoral election. No, not the opportunity to tinker with a flawed congestion charge, which seems increasingly ineffectual except as a revenue raiser. Nor the ability to restore the inalienable right of bankers’ wives to block roads with their 4x4s on the school run. Ken’s real legacy has been to drive through CrossRail, linking North and South London, in the teeth of entrenched government apathy. And, of course, helping to win the 2012 Olympics which, if it does nothing else apart from haemorrhage money, will ensure the effective redemption of a swathe of East London, with attendant social and housing benefits. All Boris has to do is ensure things go smoothly and reap the dividend in a further term.

All? It may be that Brand Boris is constitutionally incapable of managing anything smoothly. Certainly organisational ability does not appear high on the list of brand attributes. But at least he has been smart enough to hire people like Anthony Mayer, chief executive of the Greater London Authority under Ken, to do that kind of thing for him.

More likely, trouble will arise from the brand’s combustible mediagenic ingredient. Boris is that rare thing, an articulate celebrity. Not only does he have the celebrity’s innate ability to damage brand value through inappropriate behaviour, he positively relishes opportunities for doing so. As a practising journalist, he is incapable of resisting the siren witty sound-bite, with the result that Liverpool and Papua New Guinea are still not on talking terms with him. Could he, inadvertently, have the same effect on Londoners?


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