The televised debates in this UK election also took its cue from the last US election, in which Barack Obama not only beat John McCain at the polls but in the court of public opinion, displaying a sophisticated mastery of social media that leveraged texts, tweets, Facebook and online electioneering to rally Web-savvy younger voters. The British political party leaders did their share of tweeting while their parties set up websites to get across their point of view. The parties rolled out apps to poll real-time opinion. They opened their debates to the online electorate, inviting users to submit questions via YouTube, all in a bid to impress and rally voters. They used Facebook to organize flashmobs, tussled with bloggers and leveraged online video to shake up the masses.
The use of social media in the UK election said more about how voters have changed than the parties themselves. The mood as the poll results were released, particularly in the creative industries, was one of confusion. Think about it: Britain’s capital is one of the most thriving, creative capitals in the world. It’s bursting with talent that is sought by many of the biggest global companies. Even in economic hard times, new ideas and innovations are popping up, both online and on the street. Yet the UK’s political parties failed to show any real innovation or truly engage with grassroots social media, which they should have mastered long before they started campaigning. Sure, the campaigns had their ‘strategy’ gurus sitting behind them but real strategic, creative brand communications had fallen short.
In the end, it wasn’t social but traditional media, particularly TV, which shaped the course of this election. And that, perhaps, has taken the spin-doctors by surprise. The most buzz was generated by the historic first of seeing the leaders of the three key parties take part in televised debates. Unlike the US, Britain is not fond of making its politicians Hollywood-style celebrities. But it is personality branding that has driven the last weeks of the campaigns.
The televised debates catapulted Clegg, previously virtually unknown as leader of the Lib Dems, to the front of the polls after the first TV debate. Viewers felt he was speaking their language (with less spin than his opponents) or, as one journalist said, they wanted to vote for him because, a la Kennedy, he was deemed “better looking” than the others. Perhaps it’s simply because he projected himself as a “normal” intelligent chap who understands current issues.
Cameron, meanwhile, had hit his stride by the third and final debate and, in a well-rehearsed final closing pitch, looked to camera in an attempt to convince the nation that it, in shades of Obama’s “Change” tagline, it was “time for a change”. His clean-cut demeanor and youthfulness was reminiscent of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. But in the end, his image and messages failed to differentiate the party.
The fact that Labour couldn’t rely on good looks to keep Gordon Brown in 10 Downing Street should not have been a disadvantage. Britain is in tough times. Brown was running the economy under Blair and, arguably, was well qualified for the lead job to steer the UK out of this recession. His tough, grumpy and acerbic demeanor could have been played up to the electorate as the ideal solution – a tough man for tough times, much like Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Brown provided the ideal image contrast to Blair when the public had tired of the latter. But his ‘people’ did not use it to their advantage.
In attempting to adapt to personality politics, Brown instead adopted a stiff smile for the cameras, which, to many, looked superficial. If voters were unsure about the Brown makeover, any illusions of trust were shattered by ‘bigot-gate’ – Brown’s unfortunate comments following a conversation with an elderly woman that were picked up by TV microphones and convinced voters that their PM (like most politicians) was two-faced. In one fell swoop, Brown lost the image campaign and the election. And when so many voters perceived the parties’ policies, and the differences between the left and right, as difficult to differentiate, in the end their leaders’ personal image turned out to sway votes.
Amidst all the confusion, perhaps the political parties will learn from their failure to grip the nation’s imagination and produce a decisive outcome. A political ‘brand’ – in the form of a political party and its leader – needs to stand out and deliver. The messages need to be clear and simple across every form of media – from TV to posters to digital and social media. Spin and good looks does not make a leader – the electorate is far too savvy to fall for that.
"The election has brought out the very best and worst in modern branding,” says Ralph Ardill, head of The Brand Experience consultancy in London. “At its best it has reminded us that at the heart of any meaningful brand there needs to be a meaningful and sustainable human truth that really matters and makes a difference to people. At its worst it showed us that political branding still has a long way to go with all the political parties still believing the can lead us into the future with 'hollow' brands built around varying degrees of spin, denial and deflection."
Whichever party ends up in No 10, the biggest winner of this race has been the Liberal Democrats – a party that never really got any airtime before the TV debates. If predictions are to be believed, it will be no surprise if the final result is a hung parliament. It is exactly what everyone dreads: it’s not what the economy needs and it does not help Britain’s image. But it would be a fitting outcome resulting from a wobbly and surprising campaign. Perhaps when the next general election rolls around, Britain’s political branding will finally have come of age.