07 May 2019 20:34 IST

Can a political brand be built like a consumer brand?

Looking at political brands through the consumer lens offers useful lessons for parties

As India's month-long celebration of democracy reaches its peak, one can’t help but speculate the outcomes and the influence it will have on them; will the usual suspects of political rhetoric, personas, vote bank politics and hyped-up controversies continue to dominate outcomes? Or will this election see a more mature voting pattern that looks beyond the hype and chooses leaders the way consumers choose brands?

The electoral battlefield is similar to that of consumer brands because the outcomes they both seek are similar: Arrest people’s attention, capture their imagination, build loyalty and gain from their advocacy. The relationship of political parties with voters can be equated to the relationships that brands build with consumers.

The 2019 general election therefore, can be viewed as a battle of political brands, where an astute branding strategy that understands voter mindset will aid in building voter loyalty and driving electoral success. Looking at political branding through the consumer branding lens, one can break the process down into four key tenets: a resonant philosophy, credible leadership, coherent action, and an aligned experience.

Let’s take a look at each of these tenets and how they influence voter choices.

A resonant philosophy

Voters today are subconsciously (and consciously) evaluating parties on their stated values and long-term vision to find resonance with their own way of thinking. Voters are not only seeking a world view, but also a clear articulation of how that would impact their individual lives.

When one looks at the websites of major political parties in India values such as secularism, democracy and equalityaren’t quite translated into the ‘real life’ that goes beyond idealism. The AAP’s 2019 manifesto is a good example of a resonant philosophy in action. The manifesto is single-minded about seeking the full statehood for Delhi and states how this can solve a host of issues faced by the citizens . This focused approach helps potential voters to know what he or she is ‘voting for’ when they choose AAP.

Credible leadership

Political parties bottomed out in a trust survey that measured voters’ trust in political and governmental institutions. This trust deficit is a huge opportunity for brand building amongst the country’s political parties and leaders.

During the 2014 elections and now again in 2019, the Narendra Modi-led NDA has capitalised on this . By leveraging the credibility of PM Modi through the slogans ‘Ab ki baar Modi sarkar’ and ‘Phir ek baar Modi sarkar’, the coalition brand has enjoyed the rub-off effect of the enormous trust and popularity enjoyed by PM Modi amongst his followers.

Coherent actions

Coherent actions are statements, acts and initiatives of the party and its leaders, that are aligned to its core philosophy and therefore reinforce voters’ faith. Political parties simply reacting to developments that might benefit them do not qualify as coherent actions. To build strong political brands, parties must not only react with agility, but also proactively work towards living their philosophy, whether or not they’re in power.

The INC has been strongly associated with the fight against poverty for decades; garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) was a popular slogan used across generations by the Gandhis. In light of this, the INC’s 2019 promise of minimum wage for the poorest of the poor in India, is an astute approach by a challenger brand, to leverage on its strong legacy.

Another interesting example of coherent action is the controversial demonetisation in 2016. While the jury is out on whether it achieved its objectives or not, it was still perceived as a bold manoeuvre by a leader intent on eradicating black money. Agreement with the core philosophy of the party made it a reasonable action in the eyes of voters.

An aligned experience

It is an aligned experience when the policies enacted by elected leaders lead to outcomes that meet voter expectations. While coherent actions can be a demonstration of intent, an aligned experience must deliver desired outcomes.

A distinctive feature of the aligned experience is that it is local in nature. If a ruling party is able to improve the quality of everyday life and build trust in the local voters, then it significantly improves its chances of being re-elected because it has delivered an aligned experience. However, if the ruling party fails to live up to the on-ground expectations, it risks stirring up public discontent, irrespective of its macro achievements.

A host of opinion polls regarding the 2019 elections have indicated Modi as the number one choice for re-election; but they also indicate that the NDA is unlikely to maintain the same number of seats that it won in 2014. Considering that some of the States where the NDA is projected to lose seats are also States where they run the government, one could argue that dissatisfaction with local governance is spilling into the Lok Sabha election outcomes. The lack of aligned experience could be the cause for the projected loss of seats.

Today, political parties have a complex relationship with voters, much akin to the kind that brands have with consumers. A new way of thinking for political parties would be to build on a resonant philosophy that voters can identify with, strengthened by credibility of its leadership, catalysed by coherent actions that reinforce the philosophy and cemented with an aligned on-ground experience that positively impacts the everyday lives of voters.