Tuesday 10 October 2017

Political brand language

Winning the war of words is key to winning votes in British politics. But how do once-benign terms crystallize into divisive political vocabulary? We investigate contemporary political language games and show how they aren't all that different to company branding.

What does the word ‘progressive’ mean? Chances are, your mind has gone straight to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. They’re always claiming their policies are ‘progressive’. In branding terms, they ‘own’ the word. And what a word to own! No one is against progress.

The term originally referred to taxation that progresses – i.e. the percentage of the tax you pay increases the more you earn. It could have easily been called something unpleasant like ‘loaded taxation’ or ‘ratcheting taxation’ but George Bernard Shaw was advocating the approach in a booklet published in 1889. So he chose an appealing word.

First mover advantage
Just like brands who use their first mover advantage to seize certain properties for themselves, once you own a word, it’s very hard for a competitor to take it off you or change its meaning. Believe it or not, the Conservatives tried to position themselves as the progressive party back in 2009. It didn’t work. Similarly, amongst a certain generation of car owners, Volvo is still associated with safety even though Mercedes invented the crumple zone and Ford invented the airbag.

Going negative
The flip side of taking ownership of an appealing word is going after a term your enemy uses and displacing its neutral linguistic definition with a politically toxic one. David Cameron popularized the term ‘austerity’ in a 2009 speech, and the then Chancellor, George Osbourne, was happy to use it to describe his budget over the course of the parliament. The Left seized on the term, making it the focus of opposition to Conservative economic policy. It worked.

'End living within our means now' doesn't sound quite so good

Now even the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Austerity’ as ‘difficult economic conditions’, a far cry from its original, apolitical meaning, ‘severity or sternness, plainness or simplicity’. Even independent journalists on the BBC use it to describe the policy, despite its politically charged connotations. It is now rare to hear Conservative ministers use the word but they waited too long. Its meaning is set and its negative association with the Conservatives is locked.

Spinning toffs and spending luvvies
The Conservatives may not have been on form recently, but they are past masters at political language. When you take total government expenditure divided by the number of years in office since 1946, the Conservative party have borrowed more than any Labour government for the past 70 years. So why is Labour always perceived as the party of reckless borrowing and relying on the ‘magic money tree’? 

Since the financial crisis, Conservatives have repeatedly insisted they are ‘paying down our debts’ and ‘reducing the deficit’ as Labour got us into ‘this mess’ by ‘bankrupting the country’. Labour has all but given up trying to convince voters they can handle their pocket money: they lost that linguistic skirmish in spectacular fashion. It doesn’t matter how many times they bang on about the consequences of cutting public spending: few people in Britain believe Labour when it comes to sound economic management.

Don’t get spotted
The tarnishing of ‘austerity’ and the polishing of ‘progressive’ are examples of another law about brand and political language: people shouldn’t notice you at it. If they do, and the critical faculties come into play before a definition is set, you can face a backlash.

Post-crash, Labour’s Gordon Brown became a laughing stock for trying to repackage public spending as ‘investment’. Brown should have realised: the damage was done and trust in Labour’s fiscal management was shattered.

This wasn’t the issue with Theresa May’s mantra ‘strong and stable’. She looked just that in April. Come June the prime minister and the phrase were objects of ridicule. Why? Well, politics is complicated. But many found the repetition of the phrase, in answer to pretty much any question, just drew attention to the manipulation. It was also an overpromise, which is always a bad idea in branding as it undermines trust. When the evidence – capitulation to protests about a tough social care policy – proved the phrase wasn’t true it was abandoned.

Don't get rumbled...

What’s being fought over now?
Fighting fire with fire, Labour successfully created phrases like ‘pasty tax’ and ‘bedroom tax’, both proving damaging to Tory policy. More recently, ‘dementia tax’, a gift to Labour from none other than former Conservative speechwriter Will Heaven writing in The Spectator, was adopted by the Left with glee. Its entrance into public debate was widely believed to have been a turning point in the 2017 general election. It was a hot topic on doorsteps nationwide.

One ongoing battle is the tug-of-war over ‘hard-working families’ (in politics, there are no lazy families). Both the main parties use this term liberally. To the Left, it probably means something like, ‘poorer working people oppressed by the Tories’, whilst to the Right it signifies, ‘people trying to get on in life without the state getting in the way’. What you take it to mean is probably decided by which box you cross on polling day. Neither has won this phrase, nor seems likely to, as each side realises they need to fight for it.

Word up or go down
Brands can learn from all of this. At the moment, most tone of voice guidelines are a rather innocuous assemblage of basic tips on writing well an afterthought of the brand review process. (If you don’t believe me, ask how many in-house writers your brand consultancy has and compare that to their designer count.) Tone of voice guidelines should map out the words brands want to appropriate. They should set out the meaning the brand wants to invest in those words. And they should give examples so everyone writing for the brand gets it and starts using the new words in the right way, day in day out, so their new meanings and associations become the norm.

Don’t jump the gun
The future of the Conservatives’ other election neologisms, ‘magic money tree’ and ‘coalition of chaos’, remain in the balance. They have all but disappeared in the fallout following the general election. That reveals other truths: you can’t invest phrases and words with the meaning you want without time and authority. If either run out, you should stop and wait until your fortunes change.

Great brands understand this. They figure out what meanings they can own, capture them in words, and never stop reiterating them: Vorsprung durch technik, The Ultimate Driving Machine, Never knowingly undersold. That’s what straplines are for, but few brands have the focus and foresight to get the line right and stick with it for years. It’s a process that requires enormous ingenuity, discipline and perseverance. But, just like wily politicians, smart brands can see big rewards for making language central to their positioning. 

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