Brand this

When you think about Stephen Harper, do you also think “taxes”?

When you consider Michael Ignatieff, does the word “corruption” spring to mind?

How about Jack Layton — “in touch”? Me, neither.

None of those words apply to any of those political leaders. The Conservative leader is associated with taxes? The Grit boss — who has never held power — is somehow corrupt? The Dippers are “in touch” — with what, exactly? Sheesh.

But, according to Abacus Data, those are just some of the words Canadians associate with Harper, Ignatieff and Layton.

A national poll Abacus did in early December asked nearly 1,400 respondents the following: “When you think about the [political party], what three things first come to mind?”

You’ll be surprised by what they found. I was. If Harper has a “brand,” it sure ain’t taxes. Ditto Ignatieff — he may be branded with lots of words, but “corruption” isn’t among them.

Now, brand analysis — that is, the identity of a product or company, represented by a logo or slogan — is nothing new in politics. Long ago, some cynic likened selling politicians to the way in which we hawk soap, so there have always been those who believe that politicians have a “brand.”

Thus, Abacus claims, Harper is associated with the words responsible, business, arrogant, honest and “taxes.”

Ignatieff, meanwhile, is tagged with “corruption, arrogance and dishonesty,” insists the polling firm — which also notes the Liberal brand is seen as having “weak leadership.”

The NDP leader, however, does comparatively better, and — like Harper — dominates his party’s “brand.” Layton’s regarded as “honest, a good leader.”

Personally, I’m always a bit suspicious of this political branding analysis stuff — and not just because some of Abacus’ findings are so weird. To me, this preoccupation with branding — putting ephemeral “values” before substance — does citizens a disservice. They’re smarter than that.

Take Apple, for example. With its wildly successful iPhones, iPods, iPads and iTunes, it’s one of the most successful companies on the planet. It has an instantly-recognizable logo and company name, to be sure. But I’d argue it is Apple’s products — not some ad agency’s touchy-feely look or feel — that has built its great reputation.

Another example: Classic Coke. Remember that? Back in 1985, Coca-Cola decided to change the taste of the beverage that is sold more than a billion times daily around the world. It also decided to call the resulting beverage “New Coke,” with a different logo.

A massive consumer backlash ensued, but not about the name — cola-drinkers didn’t like what was in the can, not what was on it. The company reverted to the old formula.

Voters, too, are much more preoccupied with what a politician does than what he looks like.

In 1993, the governing Conservative Party thought otherwise — they mocked Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis in TV ads, but were thereafter reduced to two seats. More recently, Toronto’s Rob Ford didn’t look much like a matinee idol — but his record was what ultimately won him a massive mayoralty landslide.

Ask Chretien or Ford: How you look or sound matters to some, sure.

But what you say, and what you do, is what matters most.

— Kinsella is a lawyer, consultant and Liberal

Party spin-doctor. He blogs at warrenkinsella.com

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