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customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • Sep 25 2015

If Jeremy Corbyn was a brand…

Reflections on brand purpose

For more than a decade we’ve had the pleasure of working closely with brand leaders. We’ve seen lightbulbs come on in the minds of CEOs who understand how powerful their brand could be if they put ‘purpose’ at the heart of their DNA. And in our book On Purpose being released next month, Andy Milligan and I share the three key components of implementing a brand purpose successfully. Stand up, stand out, stand firm.

Yesterday, I presented our research findings and the principles for the first time at the London Business Forum. As I prepared for this speech and reflected on how brands can lose sight of their true purpose and become driven by short-term results - VW for example - I began to think of the current political landscape in the UK. Now we are brand experience experts rather than political commentators but in a way, political parties are brands; they should have a purpose, they need to be positioned with clarity, they have a target market and they are competing for customers.

If you accept this analogy, whether you agree or disagree with the proposals and policies of the new Labour Party leader, there are some home-truths that should be embraced by leaders across the political and corporate sectors.

In an age when political leaders have turned politics into a minority sport for the British people, there is no doubt that the majority of UK residents feel disengaged with Whitehall. Commentators and columnists have often referred to the mass of bland similarities that seemingly run through all the major political parties. ‘New Labour’ was increasingly looking like ‘Old Conservatives’ and the Lib Dems just seem like a mash-up of both. Perhaps it was inevitable that when a leader began to break away from the cardboard cutout image of MPs, he would soon turn heads. Nigel Farage started the trend but Jeremy Corbyn has made it his own.

But what has Jeremy Corbyn actually done to cause such a stir in the Houses of Parliament?

From a brand perspective: he stands up. Within a few minutes of listening to a speech from Jeremy Corbyn, it’s very clear where he is positioned on the political spectrum. His arguments have a clear purpose. If he were a brand, there would be no ambiguity around what that brand stood for.

He stands out. His style stands out like whisky in a wine tasting event. From his clothes to his delivery, he is different. He doesn’t appear like he’s been lobotomised by a PR team; his opinions are aired with substance and conviction and his delivery is not as polished as we have come to expect from David Cameron and Ed Milliband. In this regard, he’s refreshing because he comes across as his own man rather than the manufactured product of a spin doctor.

Will he stand firm? Will he remain strong on his principles in the face of consumer criticism and media comment, or buckle under the pressure? As the pressure cooker of an election gets turned up to the max, will he try to fudge his position on issues and compromise his beliefs? Only time will tell.

If he does stand firm during the next five years, he’ll need to convince a large enough majority of his party and the electorate that his policies are for them and not just those within niche socialist circles.

And this choice between conviction and compromise; appealing to the mass or the minority; where to invest in being different from competitors - is a dilemma that all brands face. Should you stand out with a clear point of difference like Metro Bank and attract a small but passionate following, or attempt to be all things to all people like HSBC, running the risk of becoming mediocre and forgettable?

Our experience with brands has taught us that the answer is in ensuring that your purpose and principles are ones that resonate with your target consumers and that they are large enough as a segment to give you critical mass in your market unless of course, you are happy to be a niche operator.

So how would Smith+Co advise Jeremy Corbyn?

Using the leverage of insight into his target audience and what the electorate truly values, we’d recommend he puts any unattainable and impossible hobby horses and policies on the back-burner. (This wouldn’t be an easy conversation).

We’d tell him to stand firm on those policies that people can buy into and are aligned with his political convictions. We’d tell him to ‘dial up the difference’ and accentuate those things that set him apart from the other leaders.

And finally, we’d say do not be afraid of upsetting people. As Yvon Chouinard, founder of inspirational brand Patagonia, says: “If you’re not pissing off 50% of the people, you’re not trying hard enough.”

On that note, and before we said our goodbyes, we’d leave him with this thought; being purposeful means ‘doing’ not just ‘having’ a purpose. It is the behaviour rather than the intent that matters here. It is aligning your behaviour with what really matters on a daily basis that lends the brand authenticity and power to your purpose. In that context, does it really matter if he sings the National Anthem or bows to the Queen? These are merely ways or dramatising or symbolising beliefs. The larger question is ‘What does Jeremy Corbyn truly believe and is that something that we can buy into?’