Political Brands: Can Parties Be Distinguished by their Online Brand Personality?

This paper was in response to a call for greater exploratory research into brand personality in politics and a collaboration with Fiona Lettice and Chris Hanretty. The paper uses Aaker’s model of brand personality along with multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) to plot the relative personalities of five UK political parties.

Rutter, R.N., C. Hanretty, and F. Lettice, Political Brands: Can Parties Be Distinguished by Their Online Brand Personality? Journal of Political Marketing, 2015: p. 1-20.

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 Introduction – The UK political structure has expanded from what was once a two-horse race into a complex multi-party system. This is evidenced by the election of a coalition government in 2010 and the seven-party representation in recent pre-election debates. There have been, however, some suggestions that the electorate have little choice due to the homogeneous nature of a number of the parties. This raises the question of whether there is sufficient differentiation between parties and their policies, leading to increased attention paid towards the ‘brand images’ of the main five parties: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, the Green Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

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Online presence – Parties represent themselves through a variety of media, including television and radio, advertising hoardings, newspapers and personal appearances, such as hustings; all of these contribute to the overall impression that is formed. However, when people are looking for a summary of a party’s position on a particular issue, they are likely to turn to the internet, reading both online articles and the contents of the parties’ websites. It is from the five main party websites that this research was able to glean a large amount of analysable data, which could be used to analyse the brand personality each appeared to present.

Spatial politics: Brand characteristics – Although branding usually refers to a commercial product, the same principles have been applied to the presentation of political parties. The research utilised Aaker’s model of brand personality and five dimensions were analysed: competence, excitement, ruggedness, sincerity and sophistication. Using a system of categorising words and phrases that relate to these dimensions, known as Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, it was then possible to perform a statistical analysis of the frequency of key words and, consequently, determine the dominant characteristics of each party. The findings showed that: competence and sincerity were considered primary dimensions, and sophistication, ruggedness and excitement took a secondary role.

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The brand ‘personalities’ of the parties – Using the method described, a clear picture emerged of the characteristics demonstrated through the online presentations of each party, as well as how strongly each characteristic was represented.

  • The Conservative Party demonstrated competence very strongly, through use of such words as ‘responsible’ and ‘guarantee’, particularly in relation to economics. The frequency of words such as ‘rigorous’ and ‘tough’, on the one hand and ‘charismatic’ and ‘distinguished’ on the other, show a balance between ruggedness and sophistication.
  • Labour showed a bias towards ruggedness and competence, although the latter was less clearly defined than the Conservative position. Their perceived level of ruggedness reflects a position more strongly espoused by the party after losing ground in the areas of sincerity and sophistication due to the electorate’s adverse reaction to decisions made by the Blair government.
  • Having strongly communicated excitement and sophistication during their 2010 election campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been reduced to demonstrating weak residues of competence and sophistication. They are now unable to convince the public of their sincerity after failing to keep some prominent pre-election promises.
  • Relative newcomers, UKIP, have the strongest brand differentiation of the five main parties, positioned in a unique space in comparison to the other four. They communicate a moderate air of excitement and, through their use of words including ‘realistic’ and ‘heartfelt’, a much stronger sense of sincerity.
  • Of the five parties that operate throughout the United Kingdom, only the Green Party is failing to distinguish itself sufficiently from the others. Its data set shares space with both the Conservative and Labour parties, although it is generally considered to be more closely related to Labour. Unsurprisingly, since its chief area of concern is the environment, the Green Party most strongly communicates ruggedness, but fails to do the same for sincerity or sophistication.

In summary, the study showed that the online brand personalities of four of the five main parties are clearly differentiated, with just the Green Party failing to achieve a unique position. With the results of the 2015 general election now a matter of record, it is entirely possible that those responsible for projecting the images of the parties will turn more heavily towards commercial branding practices.

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