Branding is considered the hallmark of modern political communications. It’s viewed as “ersatz” ideology, or a sales pitch during the “political point of sale” (elections) where candidates are products and voters are consumers. It reduces complex political information to slogans and symbols (e.g. colors and songs about swimming in a sea of garbage), all manufactured based on strategic market research. Some thus argue that political branding creates “shallow ideological roots” that can be shifted for electoral gain. So is it simply means to an end?
I argue here that the democratic benefits of political branding outweigh its costs.
(If you are more interested in branding in action / lessons and observations from the 2010 election campaign scroll to Reflexivity: the Missing link here.)
This has to be understood in the context of the “cacique” nature of Philippine democracy (where political bosses dictate the democratic process), and in particular, the widespread practice of “clientelism” (known as patronage in exchange for votes). Scholars of Philippine democracy more or less agree that the democratic deficit stems from patronage politics and the crisis of legitimation and representation it breeds (for more, see works by Bjorn Dressel, Paul Hutchcroft and Joel Rocamora).
The problems are evident when we look at the electoral process. Clientelism, through political machines, “deliver” bloc votes by bailiwick (not ideology), negotiated through political networks, and where economic and social stature are key factors in the calculus. Key word: ‘negotiated’ — this implies there is poor exercise of voter choice. Julio Teehankee calls these command votes. The politics of command voting is associated with vote buying/padding, voter disenfranchisement, rent-seeking, coercion, and even warlordism. This is distinct from a new form of voter mobilization, one that is separated from the bailiwick and is more malleable to ideological appeals. These are what Teehankee terms market votes. A market vote implies there is some form of consumer power being exercised.
Political branding challenges the primacy of command voting by activating the power of the market vote. To achieve this, branding mobilizes voters through ideological appeals as opposed to patronage. In so doing, it deepens the meaning of voter mobilization from the basic notion of casting a ballot (patronage), to a framework of casting a vote of choice (market). These choices are predicated on a candidate’s responsiveness to the electorate’s needs, which if authentic, would translate from a campaign brand to a brand of governance. It is in these ways that political branding has the potential to help shrink the country’s democratic deficits.
How do we understand political branding?
Political brands are unique, identifiable symbols and associations embodied in names or trademarks that differentiate between political actors, notably as candidates. They summarize ideas and attitudes and are “psychological representations” of the candidate from the voter’s POV, an affinity known as brand equity. In the Philippines, brand equity may be inherited from non-political contexts (eg. from the movies to Malacañang) or, more recently, constructed on the basis of the public zeitgeist.
Political brands are not just an identifier but an identity that needs to be “designed, positioned and driven to grow” through electoral market targeting and segmentation. Political branding is in short the strategic construction of an emotional connection representing the electorate’s preferences in candidate selection. A deep and almost scientific understanding of the electoral market’s preferences and concerns at any given point in time (measured through market research) is thus required.
Market vs Command: the rise and fall of the machines
The emotional appeals that define political branding, widely discounted as “cognitive shortcuts” for making “uninvolved decisions,” seem to instead invigorate the Philippine electorate.
Market votes are mobilized by media-based appeals via political branding (pol-marketing, advertising and comm-strats are subsidiaries of the brand paradigm). The Erap brand strategy hinged on segmenting the vote market by class, which cuts across bailiwicks. Classes D and E represent about 90 percent of the population. In a plurality system, if you grab that, you grab the presidency.
It’s now a matter of appealing to that latent vote market. Erap did so by sealing his affinity with the poor with the slogan Erap para sa Mahirap, thus capturing the presidency with double the votes for De Venecia, a “classic clientelist, command-vote politician.” Erap may be a political veteran with his own coalition, but it was his strong brand equity that attracted political networks into his fold; his networks did not create his electoral popularity. In fact, Erap actively circumvented traditional clientelist networks (although he did employ a hybrid command-and-market strategy). Contrast the Erap Juggernaut to FVR’s paltry 23% victory in 1992 (a less than 4-point lead over Miriam), which Teehankee credits to political machinery.
The mechanisms of command voting, on the other hand, erode democratic principles and institutions. In the age of mass media, without a strong brand, politicians are forced to mobilize command votes. Gloria Arroyo’s brand was “at sea,” and so in the absence of a political brand that would attract market votes, she actuated clientelism to win enough command votes to crush FPJ’s market votes (more on this by Thompson). Through years of dispensing political patronage, including with state funds and to powerful warlords and politicos, Arroyo machinated large-scale fraud that involved bribing election officials, extensive voter disenfranchisement and hundreds of extrajudicial killings, to pad a lead of just over one million votes in the official tally.
A study of the masa vote shows that political legitimacy is understood as bestowed by the people through elections, itself seen as the “legitimate democratic process” of representation. Seen through this lens, the connection the Erap brand established with the masses unleashed the voice of the electorate. If voters’ willingness to assert their choice – whether by ballot or street – is an expression of democracy (a notion I credit to Malou Mangahas, 12/2012 interview), then despite the glaring deficiencies of his presidency, the “pull factor” of the Erap brand had at the very least loosened the constraints to democratic participation.
Reflexivity: the missing link
The flaw in the Erap brand vis-a-vis democratic renewal was the shallow segmentation of the market. Creating a target voter cleavage by class may be an optimal numerical strategy, but it misses the point of political marketing. Marketing was developed to understand the “buying” (voting) behaviors of consumers (voters) to develop an optimal product that will retain brand loyalty. This is attained through authenticity. Erap’s populist brand was simply an alternative form of elite pro-capitalist governance.
The electoral market must thus be segmented in a variety of demographic configurations that do not only look at numerical strength but active concerns. Focus groups and public opinion polling measure these voter preferences, and the data produced help inform the construction of the political brand and campaign strategy.
2013 candidates, please take note. Chiz on the back of every bus on EDSA, the endless repetition of Pia’s name in a jingle, and blanketing the city with Recto’s face does not a political brand make. That’s just a pissing contest that looks like advertising, and it’s not even cost-effective.
Here are observations on the prominent features of brand strategy from the 2010 presidential elections…
- Participatory Narratives. Brands take the form of stories that are constructed by the candidate but then left for the voter to finish as their own. Villar and Aquino did this very well. They catered to competing populist and reformist narratives that “run deep in the veins of public opinion” (Thompson).
- Villar’s storyline goes like this:
“if you work hard like me, you can lift yourself from poverty. If you elect me, I will make sure you have the tools to do so.”
- Aquino’s goes like this:
“We need good people in office to get rid of corruption. If you elect me, I can do this, but I will need your help. You are my boss.”
- In both storylines, the voter faces a “choose your own ending”-type scenario. This can stimulate public discussion of the political agenda, and motivate the electorate to truly deliberate on their choice (That Villar and Aquino were neck and neck in February 2010 suggests this was the case).
“Sino iboboto mo?”
- thus translates to
“Ano ang iboboto mo?”
- Emotional connections: the sine qua non of political branding. These are built by creating a set of promises and expectations catering to voter needs and wants, which also encourages democratic participation. The top motivators for candidate selection are leadership notions such as “dedicated to the service of the people” that, for good or ill, are judged primarily by images projected on the TV screen. These notions were also transmitted by symbols such as colored ribbons.Aquino had the built-in advantage of a “meta-narrative of family and nation, the Aquinos and the Philippines.” In contrast, Villar’s “rags-to-riches” narrative was aspirational and relatable (Hedman, Thompson). Televising his generosity in programs like Stop My Hirap offered a “foretaste of his promised benevolence as president.”
Both brands were clearly compelling. So what tipped the scale?
- Engagement of the political discourse strategically generated by the brand. Over the campaign period, opinion polls revealed competing clamors for pro-poor representation and incorrupt leadership, and to a lesser degree, competency. Sometimes pro-poor was up. Sometimes it was incorrupt leadership.Villar mainly drummed up a pro-poor message, and as a kicker, capitalized on his generally acknowledged executive abilities. Aquino’s Kung walang corrupt walang mahirap linked the dominant voter concerns of corruption and poverty, reflected his incorrupt image, and was flanked by a solid reformist narrative. Furthermore, Villar’s refusal to seriously engage with the booming anti-corruption discourse prompted the campaign to brand the billionaire Villarroyo. Aquino won with the largest plurality since 1986, dominating across all sectors and all regions.
In short: read the writings on the wall. Exploit an issue that voters care about to your advantage, and make sure you have the chops to sustain it. The worst mistake you can make is to think the electorate is stupid enough to buy in to a fake sales pitch. Authenticity is key. The people will eventually find you out.
Is political branding enough?
Certainly not. The problems lies in our political structures, and there likewise needs to be a shift in political mentality. We need to do away with party-shopping, and crack down on non-ideological party-shopping and political dynasties (although we need to reflect whether these families are motivated by personal reasons, or perhaps are truly dedicated to public service).
Perhaps shortening the presidential term and allowing one subsequent re-election will force presidents to make good on their campaign promises. As for elected leaders who do get a second (or third or fourth) shot at office, then we should pay more attention to what they are doing (cue the media and non-partisan monitoring groups).
We need mechanisms that encourage political outsiders a fighting chance at challenging traditional politics (in this respect, political branding allows candidates to construct counter-narratives to politics as usual).
At the end of the day, what we need are politicians who truly care for our country, and voters who will fight for this ideal, by exercising their power at the polls. That’s the brand of democracy I am hoping for.
**This entry is a condensed version of a paper submitted to the London School of Economics in partial fulfillment of the MSc in Politics and Communication. Full version with complete citations and bibliography can be found here.**