When the Liberal Party of Canada went looking for an advertising agency in 2013, the briefing was clear: the Liberals had a young, energetic leader with significant brand recognition. There was talk of surrounding him with a strong team, but it was obvious he’d be the face of the revitalized brand, and the embodiment of its brand personality of youthful optimism. Two years later, the 44-year-old whose opponents framed as “just not ready” became the 23rd prime minister of Canada, forming a majority government.
The incumbent’s brand stood in stark contrast. After years of often partisan messaging from the “Harper government,” Stephen Harper’s and the Conservatives’ brands had morphed into one ubiquitous tired megabrand, one that Canadians would come to perceive as “old,” “traditional,” and “closed.” Much has been said about the federal Conservatives’ need to rebrand since the last election. The party has a new logo, and a new leader. But the jury is out on how, and how fast, its brand image is evolving as it attempts to broaden its appeal.
Justin Trudeau will turn 50 this year. He is now what marketers call a “mature brand.” By contrast, Erin O’Toole, who looks older than Trudeau though he is a year younger, is far from an established or mature brand, with comparatively low brand recognition and low familiarity among Canadians.
The word ‘“mature” probably wasn’t one most voters associated with Trudeau during the last election, when the controversy over blackface erupted. But that was before the global pandemic changed everything. He now has the perceptual advantage of having dealt with an unprecedented set of challenges. He’s gone from being the privileged son who inherited a famous political brand to someone who has had to deal with the pressures of the office (grey beard as clear evidence), learned from it (mistakes were made but the government was well-intentioned in trying to protect engineering jobs and support students), and is now uniquely suited to lead the country out of this mess and reboot the economy by helping families and businesses recover. This could be the brief as the Liberals prepare for a possible election this spring nobody says they want.
Brands are a set of beliefs that in uncertain times provide certainty and assurance. When times are tough, established brands represent reliability and resilience. But it’s also when many whose lives have been drastically changed rethink their loyalty to brands and seek alternatives that either better suit their new reality or offer the promise of a different future. While polls suggest Trudeau would start campaigning from a position of strength and might have a shot at a majority, the pandemic’s unprecedented shock to the system and to people’s lives makes the outcome of the next election far from a foregone conclusion.
Strong brands are promises kept: Policy declarations and promises will matter as always, but voters also think like consumers and act according to their personal needs. They may care about the good of the nation, but they care mostly about what’s in it for them – and that will be inoculation against COVID-19. If the complicated system put in place by the various levels of government fails to deliver vaccination to all Canadians quickly and efficiently, Trudeau will have overpromised and underdelivered.
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Strong brands make it easy: Ease of use and making life easier are universally relevant brand benefits. And because many Canadians are physically, mentally and economically exhausted, they want what’s easy and effortless. They want the normalcy of their pre-pandemic lives. “Building back better,” the federal government slogan for fighting the COVID recession, sounds like hard work they don’t have much energy left for. Voters will again “choose forward” – the Liberals’ official 2019 campaign theme – as long as it means they can go back to the way things were. Trudeau will be tempted to promote a bold vision of the future, but unless voters see an easy path forward, they won’t buy it.
Strong brands are empathetic, genuine and transparent: Voters will be looking for a leader who will help them move forward while being attuned to the mood of the nation. Someone who relates to the hardship that many hardworking Canadians feel and recognizes the sacrifices they’ve made. Trudeau is a gifted communicator capable of signalling empathy. However, this narrative is starting to wear thin after almost a year of talk about being in this together in dealing with a crisis that’s unprecedented – a term the prime minister has used ad nauseam. COVID fatigue is also about having heard enough from politicians, public health officials and the media. Talk of being stronger and united will fall flat if it sounds manipulative particularly when many elected officials have ignored their own government’s guidelines.
Just as consumers have not responded well to brands that came across as commercially exploitative during the pandemic, voters will not be kind to political brands that appear opportunistic or disingenuous. This is perhaps the biggest risk facing all political parties in this probable spring election.