• Transform magazine
  • November 30, 2022


Branding - a dirty word that could clean up our planet

Anjjoseph BW

Ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Anj Joseph, strategy director at global brand design agency, Wolff Olins, offers some key brand communications tips for politicians interested in being part of the fight against climate change.

In Glasgow, the world’s leaders are congregating to decide the fate of our planet’s climate and – by extension – our lives, homes and livelihoods. But COP26 is just the start – to reduce emissions and hit net zero, leaders need the backing of their governments and their people.
Take back control. Au nom du peuple. Make America Great Again. Election slogans are political parties’ equivalent of a brand promise. And whatever you think of these parties and people behind them, the slogans above have been successful. They’re successful because they meet the three criteria that most brand, marketing and advertising agencies will say make for a compelling message. They’re single-minded. They’re emotive. They promise to right a wrong. You could be forgiven for thinking that many of the world’s populist movements have taken their cues from brands. And traditional parties would be wise to follow suit. 
Why branding, why now? 
So why should politics take lessons from branding? Because to deliver on policies, parties need to convince the electorate of their importance. COP26 has the potential to be a decisive moment in our planet’s response to climate change. But from Bolsonaro’s climate change denial to Modi’s reluctance to commit to net zero, it’s clear that any pledges will only be as binding as the countries involved choose to make them. To turn commitments into action, governments need to create consensus back home, making the case to voters. Real impact will require policies that are a gearshift away from business as usual. Put another way: the degree of change required to deal with a climate crisis could prove unpopular - even unelectable - if it’s not communicated correctly. This is why now, more than ever, the lessons that political parties can learn from brands matter. 

What do we mean by ‘branding’? 
Brands are really just the simplified faces of complex organisations and the process of branding distils that complexity into a single reason why someone should choose your product over your competitor’s product.  AXA, the insurer, summarises its brand in the promise “Know you can”, a message that addresses a perceived ‘wrong’ (the feeling that insurance policies are designed to be intentionally confusing, so you never quite know what you’re covered for) and promises a singular, emotional benefit (confidence, borne out of being fully protected). Similarly, Airbnb’s “Belong anywhere” offers the emotional benefit of belonging and a promise to solve the feeling of alienation that comes from being somewhere unfamiliar. 

Up until now, traditional political parties seem to have been slower to borrow from the world of brand than their populist counterparts. But we know they can because they’ve done it before. In the UK in 2019, the Tories won a comfortable majority off the back of “Get Brexit Done” (single-minded, an implied wrong and God knows ‘Brexit’ carries plenty of emotional baggage). New Labour won in 1997 with “Britain Deserves Better” (so compelling it was used by the Tories nearly two decades later). The Democrat’s 2020 “Build back better” slogan whilst perhaps not original also met the criteria for compelling messaging.

But the trick is to do it consistently and this seems to be a harder nut to crack when it comes climate policy. In part that’s because as climate change cements itself on the mainstream political agenda, the battle is on to create differentiating-sounding policies that offer genuine new news. And the temptation is to emphasise novelty, to the exclusion of compelling messaging. The UK’s Green Party promises to “Lead the way on climate action”, but does “leading the way” really count as an emotional benefit to anyone other than prospective Green Party MPs? Similarly, the UK Labour Party’s has pledged a “Transformational green new deal” and the Biden administration is promising a“Clean energy revolution”. But it’s not enough to say something is “new” or “revolutionary”; people need to understand what that means for their lives specifically.

Does all this mean we’ve reached the death of nuance, and that today’s modern political party needs to communicate entirely in Daily Mail headlines? Well, no. Now more than ever we need expertise, thoughtfulness, and a nuanced understanding of the issues we collectively face. But we also live in the world of Twitter, TikTok and rapidly declining attention spans. While it might sound reductive to focus on the messaging, and not the substance beneath it, in reality, it’s all too easy for the vital ideas to be missed in the noise.
Building a compelling brand is not a dark art. It relies on the ability to understand what people need, but don’t feel like they’re getting. And it requires you to articulate what you stand for in response to that, in a way that’s emotive yet focused. Going back to behavioural economics, let me appeal to your loss aversion in a different way: being unable to build consensus for significant climate change policies puts our society at risk. We need governments that are willing and able to carry out these commitments and convince their electorate of their importance. Brand thinking should be a tool in their arsenal. Let’s hope they use it.