Will the Fianna Fáil brand come clean in the wash?

 

If Fianna Fáil wants to rebrand itself successfully, say marketing experts, it must go beyond playing with logos and colours, and decide exactly what it stands for in a changed world

IF FIANNA FÁIL was a product, what would it be? This was the unspoken question asked by Micheál Martin this week during a meeting to debate a possible rebranding of the party. To borrow from marketing speak, the product is toxic, sales have gone off a cliff and Fianna Fáil is carrying some heavy negative baggage. It’s no wonder that a new name and logo were reported to have been on the agenda at one stage.

The electorate has given its answer to the question of the party’s identity: it is more Enron than Apple. So what are its options? And do we truly choose our leaders in the same way we buy toothpaste?

“We have become obsessed with brands in many ways,” says Mark Borkowski, a public-relations expert representing both celebrities and corporate brands, who was described by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman as “the proud inheritor of the Barnum tradition of publicity”. Modern brand thinking is often traced to the 1980s, when big business needed to divest itself of the cost of producing goods (often by shifting plant abroad) and instead concentrate on the marketing of its products.

“In political terms, modernity can be an asset,” says Borkowski, citing Tony Blair’s adoption of the New Labour concept in the early 1990s, a move credited with making the party electable in 1997. But, he says, playing with logos is not enough. The New Labour brand made sense to the electorate only after Blair’s clause-four moment, when he insisted that the party change its constitution and weaken its long-established links with the trade unions.

Until such heavy ideological lifting has been undertaken, any attempt to create a new identity for Fianna Fáil is doomed to failure, says Mark Brennock of Murray Consultants. “Fianna Fáil must ask: what is our appeal to the Irish public, what do we stand for? Because that is not clear any more. And just changing the T-shirt doesn’t do it.”

The answer will not be found by asking focus groups and simply offering voters what they say they want, according to Brennock. He believes that, at such a critical time, it is essential to go back to the old-fashioned idea of political parties as “groups of like-minded people who got together and worked out what they thought, and then went out to persuade the voters to back them”.

The focus-group approach, he adds, contributed to the economic mismanagement of the past decade. “In 2002 and 2007 Fianna Fáil did its research and the public said they wanted the boom to go on. It didn’t work. What they offered was based on short-termism, not on a fundamental view of society. Fianna Fáil can stand for a certain philosophy, but it lost its way big-time.”

The party’s job is made more difficult by the increasingly crowded political landscape, says John Fanning, who lectures in branding and marketing communications at Smurfit Business School. “It’s not clear where FF fits on the political spectrum. For a long time its two main aims were national unity – the restoration of the 32 counties – and the restoration of the Irish language. Then they stood for economic competence, ‘we get things done’. That was what their brand was. But that has come to a grinding halt in the 21st century, and going back to their roots is not on.”

RITA CLIFTON is the chairwoman of Interbrand, which measures brand value. She says there are differences between the brand of a company or a product and that of a political party, but three fundamental rules still apply, which talk directly to Fianna Fáil’s future. “It must be clear what the party stands for. They must be consistent in the way this position is communicated. And, finally, there must be genuine leadership, ideally by someone who the voters can see embodies the brand.”

Clifton points to the US election campaign of Barack Obama. “Everything he said was consistent; he had a strong positive central message, which was carried largely by social media,” she says.

Political parties have multiple stakeholders who, unlike those working for a large company, can’t be compelled to fall in line. “It is always going to be messier when people are involved, because they bring emotions and prejudices to the issue,” Clifton says.

Voters are far more cynical than buyers of detergent or chocolate bars. Any gap between the brand and the reality behind it will be exposed, leaving them feeling cheated. “People can smell when something is wrong” says Clifton.

For this reason the jury is still out on whether David Cameron’s reinvention of the British Conservative Party will be sustained or whether its “nasty party” image will return to haunt it. In an attempt to demonstrate a gentler, tree-hugging persona, Cameron, famously, was pictured riding on a sledge pulled by huskies across the Arctic. It’s not surprising that the party’s logo has been changed from a triumphalist flame to a more eco-friendly oak tree.

According to Interbrand, about half of the top 50 brands have existed for more than 50 years. Coca-Cola, Ford and the like have endured cyclical ups and downs but remain among the most valuable global brands. Clifton has a warning, however, for those who cling to history. There are countless examples, she says, of successful large corporations that have disappeared from public life.

Remember when we used to use our Palm devices, or our kids spent their evenings on Bebo or MySpace? Well-known brands, such as Arthur Andersen or Enron or, most recently, the News of the World, can vanish quickly.

Optimistic Fianna Fáil supporters can see the party following the brand cycle of IBM. “In the 1980s we used to talk about Big Blue and how IBM was out of date, stuck making huge computers while everyone wanted sleek new desktops,” Clifton says. Now IBM is a hugely successful business-services company with a modern image. This didn’t happen by accident, according to Clifton. “The people running the company asked themselves some very difficult questions,” she says. “They moved from being about the past to being about the future.”

It’s tempting to do what is easiest, Clifton adds. This could simply mean a new colour or name or logo. “But brands exist because they resonate with us in some way; they retain equity in people’s minds.”

How much brand equity still resides in the Fianna Fáil brand remains to be seen, but the lesson from the marketing world is that nothing is forever.

In 2002 and 2007 Fianna Fáil did its research and the public said they wanted the boom to go on. It didn’t work. What the party offered was based on short-termism