The concept of branding is not new to modern politics. Since the ’90s, politicians and political parties in many countries—especially in the “developed” world—have relied on brand management concepts and techniques to improve their public perception. Two of the most widely studied examples of this have been the rebranding of UK’s Labour Party into New Labour in the mid 90s, and the Barack Obama US presidential election campaign of 2008.
Closer to home, we saw two contrasting approaches to political branding in the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent president, relied on a branding strategy that eventually proved to be less effective than that of his challenger, Maithripala Sirisena. Using a core value proposition that included a word play of his own name, highlighting the Buddhist concept of Mettā/Maitrī, Mr. Sirisena was able to run a successful campaign for “a compassionate Maithri governance, a stable country.”
The parliamentary election following this presidential election concluded just a few days ago. We saw the two main political parties—UNP and UPFA—adjust their branding to address the new socio-political context of a country that had experienced six months of “good governance,” with varying results. Eventually the UNP emerged the more successful party, though by a small margin.
As far as brands go, these two parties are the Coke and Pepsi of Sri Lankan politics. They both have the qualities of a powerful brand: authenticity, product, purpose, meaning and the ability to live richly in people’s minds. It is difficult to distinguish them in terms of brand strength, but their hold over the electorate has waned to some extent.
In contrast to their more conservative campaigns, the minority JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) stood out due to a radical rebranding that markedly deviated from their traditional Marxist-Leninist communist roots. They managed to generate a lot of buzz and seemed to have garnered more support from the urban middle class than ever before in their history. The general public and the media as well as the party itself expected a significant growth in their parliamentary representation in this election.
But the results were disappointing.
There were multiple factors influencing and affecting this result which require a thorough political analysis. I believe that is currently under way at the JVP headquarters. However, as designers and online media strategists, it is interesting for us to look at the election results of JVP as a rebranding failure.
The Changing Shades of JVP
The most noticeable change in JVP’s branding was in their party colour.
Since inception, JVP has always been red. Not maroon, not vermillion, not crimson—pure, unadulterated red, like in the Red flag (and by extension, the country flags of Soviet Russia, China and Vietnam). All their promotional material have always used red as the primary colour. Red is an integral part of the JVP brand as we’ve come to know it.
For the 2015 general election, JVP changed their colour to crimson: a modern, beautiful and attractive hue that evoked a totally different set of feelings, emotions and associations. There was nothing Marxist, socialist or communist about that colour.
Like with any good rebranding effort, this colour change was extended to all media: the JVP logo, posters, videos, print and tv ads and social media channels all donned crimson.
The Changing Faces of JVP
Typical JVP typography is strong and edgy. Their hand-drawn posters have pioneered a unique Sinhala typographic style that is associated with protests and social uprisings. Aside from their political significance, I consider them to be an important part of modern Sri Lankan street art.
JVP doesn’t seem to have an official typeface, but their print and online material usually employed a group of sans-serif Sinhala typefaces that had a solid and rather forceful character.
However, for this election campaign, they used a very friendly typeface that I haven’t seen in JVP material previously. The hand-drawn element in the slogan used a style that had nothing in common with their typical calligraphy. It is this new combination of typefaces that was seen in posters, advertisements and social media content, with a remarkable level of consistency.
Based on these brand elements, the JVP built an impressive array of creative material. Their ads—as their slogan denoted—spoke to the heart, using evocative imagery. The refreshed JVP brand added a layer of emotional connection with demographics that may have been previously uninterested in the party. Supporting JVP seemed to be a cool thing to do.
There are other impressive elements in the ‘Crimson JVP’ election campaign, such as the symbolism of the hand-on-heart gesture used in their ads which then became a real-life meme. The rebranding even went so far as to influence the dress code of JVP candidates!
Missing from this elegant picture—along with the red—was the communist rhetoric. And come election day, the Crimson JVP failed to deliver.
The Rise and Fall of Crimson JVP
On the very day the election results were announced, the crimson disappeared from JVP. Their Facebook page—such a key element of their campaign and probably the most important medium for promoting their brand—reverted to the old red, the old logo and the old typography.
The change was sudden and unexpected. It was as if the crimson was never there.
Throughout all this, the official website of JVP never changed colour, but I believe this was more a result of technical inertia than planned strategy. If it were as easily manageable as the FB page, I’m sure we would’ve seen a similar change.
The crimson rebranding was not an accident. Then why was it so unceremoniously removed? We can only speculate.
JVP: A Political Brand in Crisis
A brand is defined as the psychological representation of a product or organisation. At a basic level, the brand acts as a shortcut to consumer choice, enabling differentiation between broadly similar products.
The classic blind test is probably the best example of the power of a strong brand: two thirds of cola drinkers prefer Pepsi in blind tests, yet two thirds buy Coke. Thus, for many businesses, the brand is their most important asset. For Coca-Cola, the brand is worth almost half of their stock market value.
As important as it is, the brand image is not a simple creation of advertising. In fact, it is not even under the sole authorship of the owner company. The brand emerges also from customer experience and perception. This customer contribution is known as brand equity: a gift that customers may bestow or withhold, and is highly vulnerable even to small shifts in consumer perception and behaviour.
Today’s political context has many parallels with this commercial model. Understanding this, skilful campaigners have adopted a consumer model of political communication and branding. Campaigners research citizens as though they were consumers, and adjust their marketing and ‘sales pitches’ to appeal to target demographics.
Thus, a strong political brand is a means to address the strategic concerns of maintaining voter loyalty through communication designed to provide reassurance, uniqueness, consistency of values, and emotional connection with voters’ values and visions. It provides a framework to understand and create links between the functional perceptions of the party and candidates (i.e. policies and competence to deliver) and emotional attractions (i.e. authenticity, approachability and attractiveness), bringing together the intellectual and the emotional, the rational and the irrational.
Therefore, political branding should incorporate both hard politics of policies, issues and past performance, and the soft politics of emotional connections, values and likeability. It is here, it seems, the Crimson JVP rebranding had its roots of failure.
At its heart, JVP is still a Marxist-Leninist communist movement. Its loyal voter base is red hot, not crimson cool. The rebranding was not aimed at them: as with most political campaigns, it was mainly targeting the undecideds, who seemed to be supportive of them, but didn’t convert that support into votes come election time.
Herein lies the conundrum of political branding: political brand equity is mainly defined by the undecideds. It has shallow roots and is easily afflicted. A major rebranding of a political party is always a gamble.
It seems, for JVP, now was not the time.