Why Branding is Never Neutral

Political marketing draws on old lessons from business to succeed

Photo by sorendlis

This year, The Donner Canadian Foundation proudly celebrates the nineteenth anniversary of the Donner Prize, which annually rewards excellence and innovation in public policy writing by Canadians. The largest and most prestigious prize of its kind, the Donner Prize awards $50,000 to the author of the winning book, with $7,500 awarded to each of the other shortlisted titles. In anticipation of the announcement of this year’s Donner Prize winner, on May 15, The Walrus is proud to present excerpts from the short-listed books. In this instalment, adapted from Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, Professor Alex Marland of Memorial University of Newfoundland discusses the influence of branding and marketing on political action. For more information about this year’s nominees, please visit www.donnerbookprize.com.

Political marketing is a growing area of practice and study in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. It involves the use of market intelligence by public sector elites to inform their decisions, particularly those on communications. Before I can describe the components and objectives of branding, or its practice in the public sphere, we need to understand its foundations in persuasive communications and marketing.

Branding is as old as the ancient practice of marking livestock with symbols, yet in its modern sense it has only been around since the late twentieth century. The modern consumer origins of branding can be traced to the mid-eighteenth century, when businesses sought to differentiate commodities such as cocoa, coffee, soap, and tea. Products were sold in an undifferentiated manner, giving customers little reason to prefer one manufacturer over another. The packaging of commodities and their promotion with hyperbole translated into improved competitive positioning in consumers’ minds. This salesmanship evolved with opinion research techniques honed in the mid-twentieth century, when businesses had new tools to understand consumers’ needs and wants. Rather than bombard the masses with persuasive advertising, they created goods and services to meet consumers’ preferences. They tailored their communications to existing and prospective customers. It was the dawn of marketing: the design of a product or service that responds to consumers’ desires, as identified through research, and the strategic selection of communications to promote its availability. These philosophical evolutions are known in business literature as product-oriented, sales-oriented, and market-oriented. The latter two establish a philosophical basis for branding.

The evolution of motor vehicles is a good way to illustrate the three different approaches. Ford’s Model T is known for its assembly line innovation and accessibility to the middle class. Like many industrial revolution products, the car enjoyed consumer demand despite its availability in just one colour (black). Communications in that era sought to generate awareness of its mechanical features and dependability as well as information about where to buy it. “Don’t experiment, just buy a Ford,” was the primary message of one 1905 print advertisement. It featured straightforward information about maintenance, the price, an award, and a photograph of the empty car. Such an awareness campaign is a product-oriented approach to the marketplace.

As consumer interest subsides, and as competition intensifies, there is a need for businesses to stimulate demand. Competing motor vehicle manufacturers began to adopt assembly line production to keep costs down. New designs and colours were offered, giving consumers more choices. The Ford Motor Company and its competitors were faced with a need to persuade consumers to purchase their products. A sales orientation took hold as the subjective features of vehicles, such as styling, performance, and social prestige, were trumpeted in advertising. “Smoother than ever — it’s a new ride! There’s a Ford in your future” proclaimed one 1945 print ad. Rather than focus on the vehicle, the visual emphasizes a smiling mother and her relaxed children. Small print describes a stylish automobile with a “velvety ride that’s smooth.” This marked a move from objective to subjective information. It tapped into the aspirational features and lifestyle benefits that goods and services profess to offer. This persuasive communication is a sales-oriented approach to the marketplace.

Competition intensified with technological change. Executives drew on consumer research to inform them of which product features mattered most to their prospective customers. Manufacturers embraced a market orientation as they sought to offer products that fulfilled consumers’ desires as expressed in market research. All sorts of cars, trucks, and crossovers became available. Each came with an array of standard features supplemented by a range of ways for the company to personalize the purchase to meet the individual customer’s tastes. A 1974 advertisement for a Ford Mustang exemplifies the company’s attempt to be persuasive while responding to diverse customer preferences. The Mustang is positioned as “the right car at the right time” and is accompanied by photos offering the choice of a two-door hardtop, a two-door hatchback, and a top-line model. The advertisement’s copy itemizes standard equipment and a variety of available options among which consumers could choose. This research-informed effort to appeal to defined segments of the marketplace is distinct from persuasive communication because it responds to customers’ wants and needs. A marketing philosophy stimulates demand and reduces risk. However, it weakens the resolve of leaders to support creativity and innovation compared with when they follow their intuition.

The application of these sorts of business-style strategies to Canadian politicking dates back at least to the early twentieth century. Political strategists approached electioneering with a business-like philosophy more often than is popularly assumed. This philosophy includes a disciplined approach to campaign preparations, interelection campaigning, and the use of advertising agencies. Today, in addition to working with marketing firms, political parties have their own marketing experts. They consort with domestic and international political consultants and draw on the Internet to monitor trends.

Alex Marland
Alex Marland is a leading researcher of political communication and marketing in Canada, and an Associate Professor of Political Science and an Associate Dean of Arts at Memorial University of Newfoundland.