It’s the most common question an advertising agency asks its new client. “How well do you know your own brand?” Knowing your own brand intimately – understanding its strengths and weaknesses, recognizing its opportunities and threats – is the most critical part of successfully selling your product. Conversely, altering pre-conceived ideas about your brand is a monumentally difficult task that carries enormous risks. In the recent NSW election, one famous household name attempted to do just that, and suffered because of it.
Pauline Hanson ignored her own brand.
The Pauline Hanson brand is one of the most potent, pungent and instantly recognizable brands in Australian politics. So strong, in fact, that its opponents will use it to smear each other when they’re feeling particularly desperate. In the past two years alone the “Hansonite” tag has been aggressively applied to all manner of Liberal, Labor and even Green policies. It’s a headline grabber, and never fails to pack a punch. Which is because, like all-powerful brands, it generates an emotional as well as a rational reaction in the consumer. We love the Coke and Cadbury brands. They make us feel happy and joyful, evoking childhood memories. We admire the Apple and David Jones brands. They make us feel cool and affluent. We love or loathe the Hanson brand. It makes us fear or cherish who we really are, and dread what we might become.
But there is a big difference between the product and the brand. Bottles of sickly fizzy drink, bars of chocolate, malfunctioning iPods and rude DJ’s staff rarely live up to the promises of their much-loved brand names. The product all too often leaves a slightly empty aftertaste. But in the short term it doesn’t matter, because the strength of the brand means loyalists will keep coming back for more.
Pauline Hanson is no different. Over the years her product has varied in mass appeal, from attacks on Aboriginal welfare and Asian immigration, to a desire to dismantle injecting rooms and separate police powers from political interference. None of these products are of themselves compelling enough to account for the loyalty of her fans. That honour goes partly to her, the instantly recognizable spokesperson with the red hair and the unusual voice, but more importantly, it goes to her brand.
In a nutshell, the Pauline Hanson brand embraces political incorrectness. It flies in the face of accepted conventions, seeking to disrupt through provocative language and appeal to barely disguised base emotions. It aims to give voice to the unthinkable. By setting itself firmly in opposition to the status quo and the intelligentsia, it has huge appeal to the disgruntled and politically dispossessed. The phenomenal launch of the brand, at her inaugural parliamentary speech in 1996, was on a tectonic scale. The political ground shifted dramatically, and a tidal wave of fear and sympathy saw many of the pillars of conservatism severely challenged, if not swept away altogether. Despite having turfed her out of the Liberal party, John Howard, throughout his prime-ministership, laboured under the constant refrain from an indignant media that he had “stolen” or “adopted” Pauline Hanson’s policies.
Interestingly, despite lending herself and her values to the One Nation party, it is her own brand that has remained the most potent and most durable. Even though it enjoyed some initial political success, One Nation quickly spiraled out of control in a bizarre self-destructive parody of the whacky in-fighting that also destroyed their ideological polar opposites, the Democrats.
With only two weeks to go before the polls, Pauline Hanson launched herself into the NSW State Election. Her product was un-inspiring. But that needn’t have mattered. She was the instantly recognizable spokesperson, the face we all know, as irritatingly familiar as the Brandpower lady, or the Easy-Off BAM man. Clearly, she had no awareness or recognition problems to worry about.
The real folly was that she ignored her own brand, and instead of playing to her brand strengths, she attempted to shift perceptions of that brand.
Eager to appear reasonable, trustworthy, unthreatening and acceptable to the mainstream, she appeared to go out of her way to avoid controversy. I believe it was a mistake.
With limited airtime, and limited room to engage with the public, Pauline had only one real option. To re-ignite an emotional response to the brand. To let the brand sell her.
Pauline needed to provoke fear. She needed to be politically incorrect. She needed to scare the wits out of the intelligentsia. To rile and rattle. To challenge the accepted wisdom.
The issues were already there in abundance, begging to be grabbed. All she had to do was switch on talkback radio of an afternoon. Latching onto Eddie McGuire’s “falafel land” would have been a convenient starting point. Too many mosques in western Sydney? Anyone keen to ban the burqa? What about all those halal chicken burgers? Sharia law in Australia? Female circumcision? Already demonized as a racist beyond redemption by her political enemies, including the Prime Minister, the Pauline Hanson brand would have thrived and dominated the airwaves in the inevitable ferocious backlash.
Instead, by playing safe, she allowed herself to be ignored. She was a harmless, irrelevant distraction to the main game of removing the NSW ALP.
In an election where everybody, not just the “bogans” and the “rednecks”, was feeling disenfranchised and angry at mainstream politics, a provocative, politically incorrect Pauline speaking the unthinkable, daring to say the unsayable, would, I suspect, have easily won the requisite number of disgruntled voters to nab the upper house spot that she so narrowly missed out on.
It may now be too late for Pauline. She’s lost too many elections. She isn’t scary any more. The fire appears to have gone out of the fiery redhead. Seeking respectability, she is watering down her brand identity and homogenizing her provocative and potent brand attributes.
Hers is an ugly product to sell, but an effective one from a compelling brand and a credible spokesperson. Throughout Europe, a new wave of conservative and far right politicians are successfully selling their message to traditional working class voters by capitalizing upon fears of multiculturalism, or “multi-kulti” as the Germans call it. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the extreme right-wing fear-monger Jean Marie Le Pen, is dominating recent opinion polls, to the extent that the attractive, well-spoken blonde now stands poised to grab the keys to the Elysees Palace in next year’s elections.
Maybe Pauline should look to her own daughter, Lee. An ugly product from a powerful brand sometimes just needs an attractive spokesperson.
copyright Rowan Dean 2011