The federal Conservative and New Democratic Parties have a lot in common — at least as far as last year’s federal election is concerned. That was the underlying message coming out of two sessions at yesterday’s Take the Leap From Good to Great! Forum hosted by the Ottawa/Gatineau chapter of the CPRS.
Brad Lavinge (NDP Director of Communications) and Dmitri Soudas (Executive Director of Communications for the Canadian Olympic Committee and former Director of Communications for the Office of Prime Minister Harper) shared their insights into campaign strategy and political branding.
In his presentation, Mr. Lavigne walked the room through the NDP’s 2011 election outcome and illustrated how it was an overnight success nine years in the making. He traced his Party’s Orange Crush back to a plan hammered out in Jack Layton’s living room in 2002. The Project, as it is known, has three steps: win the leadership, modernize the Party, become government. After successfully identifying and connecting with the “next tier NDP supporter”, thus expanding beyond their younger base at the polls, The Project transitioned to step three on May 3, 2011.
Their success wasn’t just in reaching out to uncharted NDP demographics, it was in how they approached their messaging and where they placed their brand-building efforts. Specifically, the Party stuck to simple, short and relatable assertions meant to inspire and motivate voters. In his exuberant speeches and television ads, Jack Layton often said “Together we can do this” without telling voters what “this” was, allowing them to project what “this” meant to them. More importantly, voters connected with ”Ottawa’s broken. Fix it.”, feeling the NDP was the best suited to fix problems it isn’t associated with creating.
Mr. Soudas drew parallels between consumer and political branding. He noted brand strategy between the two is fundamentally the same even if the tactics are vastly different. His central theme, though, was that importance of brand discipline and that parties, politicians and their staff must (all) be more than brand champions, they must be good brand caretakers. Your stakeholders own your brand, not you.
In branding, particularly political branding, a lack of one clear message can’t be fixed by five or six alternate substitute messages. Mr. Soudas demonstrated that point by walking conference attendees through some analysis of last year’s federal election. The careful and disciplined focus on “strong, stable, national Conservative majority government” worked well for the Party (“The moment you tire of saying it is the moment your message is starting to penetrate”). The decline in Liberal party support was rooted in a lack of clear prepared message and a moment in the English debate when Michael Ignatieff’s “don’t give me lessons” snap at Jack Layton sent a very clear unprepared message that didn’t go over well with voters. Mr. Soudas also noted NDP success can be strongly attributed to their clear message and Mr. Layton being a great Chief Brand Officer.