Thursday, 5 January 2012


Imagine if consumers had loved Apple but disapproved of Steve Jobs. Liked Aussie Home Loans but disliked John Symonds. Flocked to Dick Smith Electronics, whilst shunning Dick Smith. Such is the conundrum facing Tony Abbott and the Liberals as they enter the new year.

Numerous commentators, and indeed some of his own team, aware of this dilemma, have been urging Tony Abbott to dramatically switch tactics, fretting that his “negative approach” could cost him the 2013 election. In doing so, they fail to appreciate the difference between selling values and selling a product. Or to put it another way, between “brand” and “retail.”

In the world of advertising, it is possible to be both positive and negative. To espouse higher order values whilst simultaneously savaging your opponents.

For better or worse, Tony Abbott now personifies the Liberal brand, in the same way that Steve Jobs became the embodiment of Apple, and Dick Smith, John Symonds and others became the embodiment of their own brands. Jobs lived and breathed his brand identity, right down to wearing black skivvies and jeans as a visual representation of the Apple narrative of stylish simplicity. Revered by many as visionary and enlightened, he still managed to stick the boot into Microsoft at every opportunity. Symonds – for whom I made several brand ads at the height of Aussie’s popularity – was equally indistinguishable from the brand he created; always speaking in that unique ‘bogan’ nasal twang, lending his every utterance an authenticity that the western suburbs adored.

Throughout the 90’s Symonds attacked the banks as mercilessly as Abbott does the government. That was his retail message, emphasized by the lower interest rates of his products. But the brand message was far more positive;
 “At Aussie, we’ll save you,” was his inspirational catchphrase. So popular was it that John found himself inundated by people genuinely believing he could rescue them from other problems in their lives – such as wonky marriages or leaky pipes. Equally, Apple’s market success was driven by Job’s inspiring promise to “think differently” and offer you “intuitive creativity” as much as by the relentless attacks on his opponents, as emphasized in the famous “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” campaign.

Tony Abbott has proven himself great at trashing the rival brand. But that will never be enough. What, in a simple few words, is the higher order benefit that the Liberal Party actually stands for?

Now is not the time to switch strategies. It is time to build the brand.

Tony Abbott’s ubiquitous visual imagery - the hard-hat, safety vest, athleticism and so on - give a flavour of the brand that he now personifies, depicting the ethos of the no-nonsense, business-minded, anti-Green Aussie worker. Someone newly arrived to this country (by boat perhaps?) would read these semiotic clues and already identify the Abbott/Liberal brand as aggressive, hard-working, and extremely effective at eliminating pesky problems. A bit like ‘Raid’, actually. Powerful, yes. But is it a brand to fall in love with?

Not if the most recent Liberal Party ad is anything to go by. A missed opportunity, this messy retail ad fails to do the brand any favours whatsoever.

For those who haven’t seen it, this unimaginative piece of work features clips from “four years of Labor disasters” set to a bizarre and unexplained drum solo.

Basically a “Worst of” selection of classic Labor Party bloopers and blunders, the ad features Wayne Swan breaking a glass of water during a radio interview, Kevin Rudd looking flustered as he faces the faceless men, and Gillard rehashing that tired old refrain that we know so well about the likelihood of a carbon tax under the government she leads. Into the mix gets tossed a tedious loop of the “moving forward” sample.

Strategically, this was the wrong ad from the Liberals at the wrong time. It may be a hit with the die-hard fans, the ones with the Tony tattoo on their left buttock or the cupboard full of ‘JULIAR’ tee-shirts, but because it offers nothing new – no new tune to whistle along to, no new memorable phrase to sing – it does what all compilation packages do: it suggests your glory days are behind you.

For Abbott, this is precisely the worst message he could be putting out. At a time when Labor are successfully painting him as nothing but negative, this was the moment – as voters look forward to the holidays, relieved that a ghastly year is finally over – to tell a positive story of Liberal values.

In advertising, it’s “new news” that cuts through. Tapping into what consumers are just starting to think, and then articulating that idea in a compelling and original way, is the key to a successful ad campaign.

Highlighting the many obvious deficiencies and mistakes of the Rudd/Gillard team is stale news. Voters, like consumers, are easily bored; and pink batts and live animal export shenanigans no longer pack the punch they did at the time. To constantly remind voters of those stuff-ups is of course important from a political perspective, but from an effective advertising point of view it is irrelevant.

“Staying on message” doesn’t just mean pumping out the same tired riff again and again and again, like Deep Purple or Status Quo.

What the ad lacks is a single clear compelling insight. Instead, it jams together a whole hotchpotch of half-ideas. We get the “disaster” theme, some “rip-offs”, a “prices going through the roof” gag, a sinister hint at the Green’s role in government, the unanswered question “why did you lie to us?” and a rather flat “who’s gonna pay?” climax. Meanwhile, the drums pound away, as irritating and pointless as Mick Fleetwood’s eleven minute solos in the middle of a Mac concert.

The Kevin O’Lemon ad campaign, on the other hand, used a single-minded, very effective creative device that poked fun at the disappointment Rudd had become to many disillusioned voters. It was the right campaign, at the right time, with a lightness of touch and humourous tone of voice that not only made it a huge viral hit but articulated precisely what the public was beginning to feel about the former PM and his team. The new ad merely regurgitates without wit or insight what the public have already bought into.

Perhaps in the dying days of a knife-edge election campaign this sort of frenetic, tacky ad could be justified. But with the Opposition comfortably placed in the opinion polls, the carbon tax off the agenda, and Gillard – or at least Labor - likely to survive another two years, “remember the bad times” is a pointless advertising strategy. This was Abbott’s chance to offer an inspiring “reason-to-believe” in his brand, rather than just trashing the competition’s yet again. As every good marketer knows, negative advertising can be extremely effective in the short-term, but brand advertising is the ultimate long-term persuader.

Take the world of supermarkets, where two giant brands go head to head every day. Coles don’t merely rely on the big red hand telling us prices are down, they also repeatedly promise us “Quality food” and remind us they are the “shop where the Masterchefs shop.” The hard-hitting retail message is balanced by the higher-order brand message. Similarly, Abbott’s endless chanting of “Down, down, Labor is down!” – or words to that effect - needs a positive and inspirational brand message to complement it.

Tony Abbott has already seen off one Prime Minister, wounded another, and reduced a landslide-winning Labor government to a shaky coalition. From a marketing perspective, his near-annihilation of the competition in such a short time is nothing less than extraordinary. Coles or Woolies would give their big red hand or bright green glove for such a successful campaign.

Consumers need to see Abbott’s Raid-style attack strategy launched from the solid foundations of an aspirational brand identity. He needs to support “our prices will never be beaten” with “we’re the fresh food people.” This does not mean he has to prematurely reveal his own policies. It means he has to find fresh ways to articulate his brand’s values. Andrew Robb has nominated “living within our means, backing our nation's strengths, reversing the nanny state and restoring a culture of personal responsibility” as the pillars of Liberal “philosophy.” To which I would suggest adding entrepreneurialism, opportunity and a passionate belief in the power of the individual. These are all key brand values that need to be sold in an inspiring way, whilst still allowing the successful attacks on Labor policies to continue. The challenge now for Tony Abbott is to find a way to flog these abstract and often intangible brand values with as much zeal as he does his aggressive "retail" messages.

John Howard defined the modern Liberal brand, becoming the representative of the determined, lone battler struggling to look after his family and small business in the face of the elitist aspirations and irrelevant obsessions of the Keating Labor era. Howard articulated a great brand story. Tony Abbott must now do the same.

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