Spinning for Ireland

Spinning for Ireland

Some years ago, I was helping out a friend in politics. The candidate had gathered all his volunteers in a pub for a pep-talk by a party bigwig. The man in question was a slick operator and a smooth talker: he told his audience that they came from all walks of life “but tonight”, he said, “and whenever you represent your candidate, you have a new job – marketing”.

The marketing and brand strategies employed by major parties say a lot about the ultimate manifestation of consumer marketing – the ‘selling' of candidates, and the ‘buying' of power. Marketing and politics have always gone hand-in-hand, particularly since the dawn of the modern consumer age in America in the 1950's. As any Mad Men fan will tell you, Madison Avenue and politics have long been close. Richard Nixon's chief henchman, Bob Haldeman, was a JWT man, for example. Presidential politics, with its inevitable focus on personality, is a magnet for the creation of branding and the power of personal narrative: ‘I Like Ike', ‘Win with Nixon', ‘All the Way with LBJ', ‘It's morning again in America', ‘the man from Hope' and, of course, ‘Yes, we can' have all become part of cultural Americana.

It is argued that this marriage of marketing techniques and personality branding reached its apotheosis – or nadir – in the branding strategies of George W Bush's ‘architect' Karl Rove. Rove's strategy was politics and branding based on voter values and cultural identity. By identifying the Bush brand with things like evangelical Christianity, pro- life, anti gun-control, the policy debate was lifted to the level of the brand and an attack on the brand amounted to an attack on the voters' own cultural values. This is often referred to as the ‘culture wars' and the stark division of the electoral map into blue and red states.

How have our own parties been influenced by political marketing and branding in the election. And what effect has it had on the voters? Despite the demands of the news cycle and the reputation of spin doctors, the election we have just had actually saw voters engage with a party or candidate policies in a way not witnessed before. The Millward Brown Lansdowne exit poll for RTE showed that almost twice as many people voted based on ‘policy' than was the case in any of the previous three general elections. People are now more engaged with policy – not less. So branding and political marketing in Ireland has not seen slick presentation replace informed debate – it appears, in fact, to have enhanced the debate.

how voters decided vs 2007

How many points were there in the Fine Gael plan again? Yes, whatever else we remember, it will be that five point plan. Time and again, the same message was hammered home to the point of self-parody on Enda Kenny's part. The message did not waver. Did this branding technique actually drive out policy debate, one of the charges against the branding of politics.

Realising that policy issues would predominate, FG “deliberately played down the issue of the leader” said party strategist Mark Mortell. The spotlight on the ‘team' was ramped up. Voters clearly responded to this, as evidenced by the low importance assigned to the choice of ‘Taoiseach' when casting their votes. FG is the political brand that has witnessed the greatest turnaround in fortunes in this country in recent times. Its 2002 defeat was not due to being toxic, but, perhaps as dangerous: perceived irrelevance. It has been a long road back for the party brand. Mortell said the Flannery Report by Frank Flannery charted the way.

The rebuilding of the brand was a process that focused on the policy platforms that the party offered as an alternative to the government and the opposition. It was all about creating a sense of purpose and a roadmap back to government'. The project accelerated after 2007: “The 2007 influx gave the party a much larger parliamentary base and allowed a more aggressive policy platform to be constructed,” Mortell elaborated.

International marketing best practice clearly played a part. In the background, the party was able to tap into the experiences and electoral strategies of its EPP sister parties in Europe, particularly the ruling parties in France and Germany. At the same time, top US political consultants were used, who researched all aspects of the party offering across policies and personalities. It may have been all about the policies but branding played a big role too.

Indeed, the plan was actually preceded by another similar marketing device. In 2007 – the ‘contract with the people' was an attempt to demonstrate both the leaders own integrity and the party's relationship with the people. The five point plan was devised as a marketing tool to clearly encapsulate the party position and build on the branding approach used in 2007.

Where is the FG brand now? It's in a new place. “Fine Gael ‘won' the election for the first time since 1982. It is the largest party in the state. It has a responsibility to take leadership positions to offer the ‘core' a political direction,” concluded Mortell, who has worked with the party since 1980. The Gilmore gale was more of a strong gust in reality, especially once it was clear the ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach' marketing blitz was way off the mark.

Instead, the ‘balanced government' slogan was used – and to considerable effect, with many switching to Labour at the last minute to achieve just that. But what was that exactly? Labour was heavily criticised before the election for being all sandwich but no meat, a slick brand without substance. Is this fair? Our evidence suggests not, that Labour voters were also policy driven as well as tactically voting to prevent a FG majority. A large proportion of Labour voters actually wanted FG to lead the government and they wanted Gilmore for T

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