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Marketing political brands: passionate punters need consistent messaging

In the last week, a number of political commentators have argued that newly-minted prime minister Tony Abbott’s frontbench is decidedly low on women. There is only one woman in Cabinet and an additional…

Many commentators criticised Tony Abbott’s ‘female-lite’ frontbench last week. How might it affect his carefully managed and marketed ‘brand’ from the campaign trail? AAP/Lukas Coch

In the last week, a number of political commentators have argued that newly-minted prime minister Tony Abbott’s frontbench is decidedly low on women. There is only one woman in Cabinet and an additional few on the frontbench.

Commentators have called the low female representation “appalling”, worse than “Afganistan’s cabinet” and “anomalous". It is certainly lower than the number of women on corporate boards, which has crept up to over 16% (of ASX200 companies). The federal government frontbench looks nothing like the electorate it represents, where there are 51% of women in the community that the government seeks to serve.

Worse than that, the controversy muddies the brand that Abbott has carefully sought to build throughout the election campaign.

From a branding standpoint, Abbott carefully demolished the Labor argument that he is a misogynist throughout the campaign. I received numerous emails from his daughters, telling me what a good Dad Abbott is and how he would be good for the country and good for me, if elected prime minister.

Indeed, the passion of politics played out around the nation during the election campaign, with passionate brands being created by emotional advertising messages. Although emotion is standard practice in marketing and politics, the casualties of brand passion are rarely discussed in the media in these terms.

Consumers use brand passion as a means of filling their lives with meaning, making them some of the most successful means of branding in the world. Consumers love to love or love to hate brands which tug on their heart strings. After all, the word passion is derived from the Latin verb “passio”, meaning suffering.

In the Christian religion, the Passion refers to the final, short period of the life of Jesus Christ: his betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection. The story is central to the Christian faith, full of lamentations, violence, healings, betrayal, regret and forgiveness. While not everyone believes in the story of the passion of Christ, the meanings have pervaded art, society and culture over the centuries, offering up a wider meaning of the word “passion”. This could have particular resonance with Abbott, who is devoutly Catholic.

In contemporary times, passion is a term that conjures up notions of love, romance and strong feelings for someone or something else: religious observance, spirituality, or suffering. There is a continuing and natural link between passion and politics, which moves beyond the Christian story.

So how does passion work for branding? Staying close to the punter, being consistent in your message and building a relationship with each particular punter is essential. Keep their trust. When consumers feel emotional about a brand, they feel strongly about it, using words like “love”, “joy” or “being close to my heart".

The strong feelings of passion for politics encourages a person to develop a long term relationship with a political party. But passionate support needs consistent messaging to ensure loyalty and a humanising touch. So, here is the rub: in order for passion to be pertinent to politics, the consumer (in this case, the voter) needs to be reassured that the message is consistent so that they are not “turned off”.

Abbott showed punters one thing in his election campaign. His actions in selecting his ministry tell another story altogether, and now the punter feels disappointed. People who have negative emotions about someone or something they use words like “betrayal”, having “their heart broken” or emotion “boiling over” or creating “hostility” or “tension". This is where Abbott seems to have lost the plot.

Abbott acted with his head in selecting his frontbench, but told emotional election stories that were supposedly from his heart. His actions further support the research that men will take a risk in selecting other men for leadership positions, when they haven‘t been tried out before, but resist doing so for women.

Josh Frydenberg is a case in point. Frydenberg has been in the parliament for a somewhat shorter period of time than Kelly O’Dwyer, yet Frydenberg was considered worth the “risk” of a position of parliamentary secretary while O’Dwyer was not. Apparently O’Dwyer is considered to have been a “bit lippy”. Are such decisions gendered? Are the voices of female parliamentarians being muted? People will make up their own minds, but once the brand is damaged, the punters are less forgiving.

Was the use of Tony Abbott’s wife and daughters throughout the campaign an attempt to ‘soften’ his image? AAP/Alan Porritt

Now the punter is asking: who is the real Tony Abbott? His brand has been sullied by sending out inconsistent messages to a key voting constituency on an issue of importance. However, the message that Abbott has sent to the punters is that these matters are not important to him.

Message consistency is easy for punters to digest. The visual images of three daughters and a wife supporting Abbott are like eye candy. Now the lack of visual images of the Cabinet (one woman; 15 men) cause us to ask questions that make settling in for the new government more difficult. It will be a long road to come back from this faux pas.

While the politics of equity and female representation on the frontbench has had wide media exposure, little has been said about with the passionate component of consistent political branding that sometimes becomes evident through controversies.

It’s a bit like a fairy tale of goodies and baddies. People can relate to simple stories and that is what branding seeks to do. Send out simple, consistent messages, but seek to dig deep into the punter’s psyche. When it goes wrong, it is equally hard to fix as people see through it and consider the branding a fiction. Human emotions are central to branding, so when there is inconsistent messaging, social media goes berserk.

Senator Michaelia Cash, as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, is going to have her work cut out to fix the mess that has been created. She may need a brand manager to help her with refining the message over time. In the meantime, others may take advantage of the dilemma of the passionate punter receiving inconsistent brand messages, making the settling-in period more difficult for the new government.