McCann Enterprise applies its brand archetypes methodology to the Conservative Party.
We saw last time how the Idealist is the category generic archetype in politics. Conservative Idealism is a mix of One Nationism and Thatcherite market purity. Historically, the Conservatives have been most successful when these ideals are reconciled and least successful when they are not. And the tool, which unites the Conservative brand, is the Leader archetype – the persona that sets the terms of the debate. Leaders are brands like Sky, Roll-Royce and Microsoft; the reference for their category.
We see the Leader at work today, where the Conservative economic narrative prevails and austerity is considered the only credible policy. The Opposition’s argument doesn’t question the Tory analysis; merely the timescale. The conservatives have created a belief that the economy is doing well, when the fact is that overall debt has actually increased. That’s a Leader in action, framing the debate.
So why are Conservative leaders tempted to adopt a different archetype than that of their party?
Margaret Thatcher struggled to land the Leader persona in her first term and was projected to lose the 1983 election – she was saved by a self-destructing, split opposition and the Falklands war. This allowed Thatcher (channelling Churchill) to style herself as a Hero, a brand that fights, overcomes and protects. Boris Johnson, by contrast, shows us another Tory archetype – the Connector – with an affable wit and maverick streak that allows him to engage with a broader audience and blunt perceptions of elitism. John Major – who won more votes than any other party leader (5.5m more votes in 1992 than Blair attracted in his 1997 landslide) – was a Pragmatist, portrayed as honest, straightforward and one of us; an ordinary Joe Bloggs.
Political Leader brands often rule through fear. The Leader stands for order and opposes chaos. “Don’t risk change” is the enduring message in a Conservative incumbent’s electioneering. “Better the Devil you know.” Hence: tax bombshells and double whammys. But there’s a difference between being a brand that’s understood and a brand that’s liked. Thus, Thatcher and Johnson’s need to be admired is understandable.
This time round, David Cameron is having difficulty sticking to the Leader archetype. Leaders simplify the choices we face; Cameron agreed to a seven-way debate, confusing the decision the electorate must make. Leaders cast their opponents as weak and incompetent, but the attacks on Ed Milliband are confused. Is Milliband a ruthless man who stabbed his brother in the back for ambition, or an awkward nerd in the pockets of the unions who elected him and, potentially, the SNP?
Leaders see the bigger picture: they believe in short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit. They talk about tough decisions – “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.” But if the economy still needs the harsh medicine of austerity and Labour can’t be trusted to do what it takes to see the recovery through, how come there’s jam to spread around in the form of tax cuts, childcare and discounted housing?
These are the cracks in the Leader persona that undermine the consistency and clarity of the Conservative brand.
From the opponents’ perspective, the way to challenge a Leader is either to undermine their competence or to play upon the archetype’s dark side: the Narcissist. From the hypocrisy of ‘Back to Basics’ to the dog-whistle politics of “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” the Leader brand that gets it wrong can acquire a reputation for being ‘the nasty party’. The flip side of a character that seeks to be the arbiter of excellence is the temptation to believe they and their cohort are better than everyone else. That’s unhelpful if you want a mandate to govern for all.
Whether David Cameron is seen as a Leader or a Narcissist could be key to his party’s fortunes in this election. Will the electorate see the man whose tough medicine saved Britain from economic ruin and who championed gay marriage? Or the out-of-touch elitist who punished the vulnerable with the Bedroom Tax?