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28 March 2011

The Lib Dems’ branding crisis

A political party’s brand is more than a logo, it is its heart and soul.

By Olly Grender

The part-fiction, part-fun story in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph about the Lib Dems generated a bit of speculation about whether the party will change its name, logo or leader. It was the usual display of people who comment on politics but don’t understand branding, and is nicely rebutted here.

When it comes to branding, I should declare an interest: my whole family is in the business. My dad was involved in briefing Rodney Fitch, the designer of the current Lib Dem logo. As far as brand and marketing people are concerned, those in PR/corporate communications (labels I have been given in the past) are “fly by night – no data to crunch”. They are more polite than that, but that is their underlying meaning – and often they are right.

Understanding why people think, feel and believe something courses through the veins of the Grender clan. We were all virtually raised on it.

But when the word “branding” gets raised in the political arena, many who comment on politics – and, indeed, politicians – tend to lose the plot. Because they fail to understand what branding means. They typically think about colour, typeface, logo and the name of the party. Sometimes they make the critical error of thinking that opinion polling should even change their policies. Then we get the usual hackneyed comments, such as: “Changing your logo won’t change your problem.”

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Well, that phrase is correct, but it also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a brand means when it comes to a political party.

For years now, the Liberal Democrats have struggled with how they are perceived and, therefore, their brand. There has been a fundamental split between perceptions of the party nationally and perceptions locally.

At local level, they are seen as the party that “rolls up its sleeves, fights for the forgotten end of the borough, gutsy, no-nonsense”. At national level, they have usually been perceived as “bespectacled, slightly academic commentariat from the sidelines”. Hence, Vince Cable polled high in the years leading up to the election but nobody knew he was a Liberal Democrat.

Combine that with the critical issue of the often-repeated phrase “I would support you, but you haven’t got any chance of getting into government” and the Lib Dems have had an obvious branding problem for years.

Post-May and the coalition, however, the party’s branding is like a deck of cards that has been thrown up into the air – and the party needs to think about, and prepare for, where those cards will land.

Because of the coalition, the critical issue is now trust. Will people believe that the Lib Dems felt they had little choice regarding such issues as tuition fees? For a political party, a brand can be underpinned by policies and by perceptions, particularly of the leader, but it is not the ultimate defining factor. A brand is like a person: it builds up over time. It must be reflected honestly and accurately, or it simply doesn’t work.

Brand is important, but it will never be as simple as a change of logo – it is about the very heart and soul of the party. And I think we can all accept that that is currently in a state of flux.