Brand Theresa

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The last month in Britain can only be described as a political rollercoaster. The deep uncertainty sparked by the Brexit vote has had a huge impact on the public’s confidence in politics – and in politicians. Politicians have obviously been generating some very strong sentiments (both positive and negative) in the UK as well as the US. since brands are essentially comprised of associations and impressions that are gradually built up in people’s hearts and minds, it’s interesting to take a closer look at the brand of Theresa May, our new prime minister, and other political leaders. Why, and how, do they build their personal brands, and what is the role of brand in politics?

There’s no doubt that politicians are trying harder than ever to craft a personal brand, and there’s more need than ever to do so. Only a few decades ago, the only contact the general public would have had with them would be through the occasional televised or radio debate. Today, in a world of proliferating media and a lack of confidence in politics more generally, it’s crucial for politicians to proactively create a strong brand and communicate it clearly and consistently. The internet gives the public on-demand access to politicians – and a place to discuss them – in an unprecedented way, meaning people can very quickly form and spread opinions based on little more than a leopard print kitten heel. It’s especially revealing that twice as many 18- to 24-year olds watched the first Republican debate on Snapchat than on television – a medium designed to give shallow glimpses into fleeting moments, rather than deep political insight. As a result, more politicians are taking their brands into their own hands, and investing time and money in crafting them.

So how has our new Prime Minister approached the question of her brand throughout the Conservative leadership contest and beyond? May first caught the eye of many back in 2002 at the Conservative party conference with a pair of her now famous leopard heels, and her dress sense has continued to be a preoccupation ever since. There’s already been more than enough analysis of her sartorial decisions, but it is worth noting that they are just that – deliberate decisions – intended to create a specific impression: that of an independent, approachable and most importantly, different, type of politician. By distancing herself from the pearl necklaces and pantsuits favoured by some of her peers, she is making a considered decision to set herself apart from the women she will, inevitably (if unimaginatively) be compared to – Thatcher, Merkel, Hillary Clinton.

Having said that, although there is a lot to set the two apart politically, the comparison between Hillary Clinton and Theresa May is worth making when it comes to their political brands. Clinton clearly understands the importance of brand, and has enlisted consumer marketers like Wendy Clark, formerly of Coca-Cola, to help bring some sparkle to her campaign. One decision that has evidently been made is to ditch her surname and favour Hillary instead – in part, to create a more personal and relatable brand, especially in comparison to Trump; and also, no doubt, to distance her from brand ‘Clinton’, with all its political baggage. Theresa May similarly tends to go by her first name more than is usual for a prime minister (Cameron, Brown and Blair are used much more than David, Gordon or Tony). Is this an attempt to appear more personable and friendly, a unifying force in the face of division and uncertainty, and to single-handedly throw off the “nasty” image of Conservative politicians?

There’s arguably more subtlety to the British approach to political campaigning – while our politicians are undeniably brands, there isn’t the same sense of ‘selling yourself’ as there is in the US. Wearing a Trump baseball cap is normal in the US, but you’re unlikely to find any Brit wearing a ‘make Britain great again’ baseball cap or Theresa t-shirt. This could be due to the historical differences in marketing in the two countries; because of its history of multilingualism, American marketing tends to be more visual, brasher to British eyes. 1950s British advertising executive Ronnie Kirkwood described American advertisers as “loud mouthed salesmen who confused shouting and communicating, and bullying with persuading” (sound familiar?).

However, maybe British politicians could take a leaf out of their American counterparts’ book in branding themselves. Of course, it also helps when the country’s identity or brand is as clearly defined, visually and culturally, as the States’, giving a base to piggyback off. The UK, meanwhile, is almost defined by its differences and diversity; which is no bad thing, but makes a strong political brand that much harder to craft. The standard of political branding during the recent Conservative and Labour leadership races has ranged from the understated to the lamentable – Angela Eagle’s Rimmel-esque brandmark being a particular lowlight. Whether you agree with her politics or not, Hillary and her brand team have certainly done a good job of building a powerful, personal image, right down to a consistent tone of voice that has been successfully deployed across social media. Her tone – in contrast to the belligerent Trump – has been human and witty: her first picture on Instagram was of red, white and blue suits with the tagline “Hard choices”, and racked up 28,000 likes.

The key thing to note, however, is that brands gain the trust and loyalty of consumers, or voters, when they are credible, consistent and authentic. And in times of uncertainty, trust is exactly what’s required. Theresa May isn’t at this stage yet; people don’t know what to make of her fun dress sense when compared to her hard-hitting political views, or the various inconsistencies in her political views themselves. The public didn’t elect her this time, but when we inevitably come to a general election, May will need to work harder to create a brand that is authentic and true to who she is, beyond the outrageous footwear, and that resonates with voters. When a politician’s individual brand can end up a proxy for, or representation of, an entire nation, a strong brand is especially important; especially when the nation is in a state of flux, as the UK is at the moment. The world’s eyes are on Theresa May now, as she tries to stand for something different and meaningful in a post-Brexit Britain.

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