Oct 18th 2019

Party conference season: a golden opportunity to reposition brands

As this year’s political party conference season draws to a close, it is a good time to reflect on how each of the major parties were able to capitalise on the rather unique opportunity to reposition themselves in these turbulent times, and what businesses can learn from this.

In the technology world, and particularly for start-ups, opportunities to reposition can be quite common. Milestones such as funding rounds, exits, leadership changes, acquisitions, or pivots often see brands review how they are perceived by their key stakeholders, and adjust their messaging, focus, and even name to better address their target market or audience.

While, generally speaking, politics has more to learn from business communications than vice versa, companies looking to rebrand or reposition themselves can learn something from political party conference season. Here we’ll attempt to explore that further.

For this author, 2019 presented a rare opportunity to spectate on party conference proceedings from afar, having attended at least one of the major parties’ annual get-togethers for the last few years.

In some ways, this conference season was the same as it ever was – providing an opportunity for the parties to gather the elected and voluntary wings of the membership together, engaging in conversations about policies and priorities, and rallying the ‘ground troops’ ahead of any upcoming elections.

However, in many ways 2019’s conference season was very different. The current political climate is unlike anything we have seen in recent years. The disagreement and parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons before conference season was such that the process of our impending withdrawal from the European Union had ground to a halt, with no consensus on how to achieve a mutually agreeable deal.

Despite multiple votes, and multiple Prime Ministers, the Brexit impasse continued into conference season, with a general election looming.

Reframing the debate

With the prospect of an election around the corner, the party conferences grew in importance.

Most of the major parties had undergone significant change heading into September.

The Conservatives had a new leader with a radically different approach to the last. Despite being long-tipped for the role, and a firm favourite of the party grassroots, he has had one of the worst starts to a premiership in modern times.

The Liberal Democrats had absorbed a growing number of former Conservative rebels, giving them significantly more influence in the commons than at the beginning of this parliament.

The Scottish National Party’s independence stance continues to harden, as they argue the Westminster Government is taking Scotland out of the EU against its will.

Labour, however, hasn’t really changed at all. The party’s Brexit position remains deliberately unclear, as internal turmoil over anti-Semitism and the disconnect between the leader’s office and the parliamentary party continues to distract form the day-to-day operations of the opposition.

With a 2019 election looking likely, the conferences – with all the media attention they attract -became a powerful platform upon which parties could ‘relaunch’ their brands and solidify their policy positions.

The same principal extends to businesses – whether your milestone is a party conference or a significant Series A fundraising, this is a major opportunity to set out your stall, educate your key stakeholders on your future strategy, and use them to engage with a wider audience to deliver on that strategy. Making the most of these milestones, and generating maximum impact while you have media or market attention, is crucial.

The retail offer

Back in the world of politics, and in an election period, policy conversations quickly turn from ideology and principles to much more tangible ‘retail’ offers that are easy to sell on-the-doorstep once campaigning commences.

While it’s true that the ideological conversations still took place, the focus was very much on getting party activists to buy in to the new policies they will have to campaign on, and generating the headlines in the mainstream media that seek to sway voters one way or the other.

While polling suggests that the Tories should just about edge an election in terms of vote share, with seat projections ranging somewhere between the current 288, and a small working majority with around 325, if recent results are anything to go by, it could go either way.

In fact new research has revealed that almost half of the UK electorate (49%) didn’t vote for same party across the three elections between 2010 and 2017, making this one of the most volatile voting periods in living memory.

Winners and losers

Of all the parties, the Lib Dems probably did the best job of setting out their stall at conference. Though arguably, they had the easiest task. As they increasingly become a single-issue party, it becomes far easier for them to differentiate themselves from the rest. They had a clear and coherent message, they hammered it home, and for the majority of voters, that may well be enough. While they currently have the momentum with them, it remains to be seen if the public has forgiven them for entering a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, or if, besides Brexit, they have enough policies that appeal to their increasingly broad church.

The SNP, hosting their conference in Aberdeen this week, are doing all they can to make the continuing case for independence. Despite “settling the issue for a generation” in 2014, the nationalists never really backed down. With a no-deal Brexit looking more and more likely, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made her wishes known, calling for a second vote in 2020. With Labour virtually wiped out in Scotland, and the changes in Tory leadership on both sides of the border, the SNP are desperate to capitalise and look set to sweep most of the 59 seats available in Scotland. But only if the next general election is held soon. The party will be hoping that any election takes place before the new year when Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s mentor who led the party for over 20 years, is expected to go on trial. He is accused of 14 counts of serious sexual misconduct – a trial in which many prominent SNP figures are expected to give evidence, damaging the party’s reputation. On the whole, the SNP did a good job of communicating during conference – while they rattled off the old favourites and played to their base, they used conference to buy a bank of good will from supporters ahead of a challenging period for the party.

Labour, whose conference typically enjoys more debate, with the fixture playing a much more active role in consensus-building and policy-making than most of the other parties, had a hit and miss conference. While the party’s Brexit position is no clearer than it was going in, Labour did make some interesting policy announcements which may have piqued the public’s interest. Notable among these were the scrapping of private schools, moving to a four-day week within 10 years, and £300 million for community car clubs, but there were many more. Some were aimed at the traditional Labour base and some were clearly intended to appeal to the young, urban and minority communities that the right-wing parties tend to struggle to convert to their cause. However, their event was tainted by open revolt on the conference floor with senior members of the shadow cabinet directly contradicting their leader and confusion over mishandled votes – these dominated headlines and overshadowed otherwise largely positive media coverage. While Labour may have made small gains with some voter groups, they missed a major opportunity to clarify their position on the biggest single issue facing the country, and as such could have done a great deal more with their repositioning opportunity.

In the Manchester rain, the Conservatives managed to hammer points home and continue to make policy announcements that have doorstep appeal. Be they from Home Secretary Priti Patel on being tough on crime or Matt Hancock on investment and technological innovation in health and the NHS, the party were keen to make their domestic policy intentions known, as leader Boris Johnson attempted once again to rebrand himself as a One Nation conservative, despite his relatively hard-line stance on Brexit. While some quarters applauded the domestic agenda, polls remained largely unchanged, and having lost many of the more centrist figures from the party, including grandees Ken Clarke and Sir Nicholas Soames, the public perception is that the party has taken a step to the right since Johnson entered Downing Street. It is clear that the Conservatives were trying to use their conference to outline the agenda of their new leader, broaden their appeal, and win enough voters in the centre-ground to win back a majority in parliament. On this front they have gained some ground, whether they have done enough remains to be seen.

What happens next?

With parliament back in session, and a ‘new deal’ now on the table, our elected representatives are focused on delivering, or disrupting, Brexit – depending on where they sit in the commons chamber. As October 31st looms ever closer and we head in to what some are calling ‘Super Saturday’ with a special sitting of parliament to vote on the deal, it is all coming down to the wire. No-one is quite sure how the vote will go, and what happens next – it’s too close to call.

If an election does come however, the Conservatives have something of an upper hand. Not only did they use their conference effectively to reposition themselves, but they also capitalised on another milestone this week, setting out their future legislative agenda in the Queen’s Speech. This opportunity to describe in detail the priorities and policies of the party is invaluable going into an election cycle and dominated much of this week’s home news. There are those who have remarked that it was tantamount to a political party broadcast. There are others who simply think of it as a necessary event with somewhat fortuitous timing.

Whatever your view on the politics, from a communications standpoint, they used the tools at their disposal effectively and didn’t pass up the opportunity to generate maximum impact from the milestone events on their calendar. Businesses can learn a lot from this.

The timing of announcements and synchronisation with major milestones can have a major impact on how businesses are perceived. Announcing your latest funding round and new product offering four weeks apart makes little sense. By combining the two you maximise the impact of the raise and demonstrate momentum, creating a better, combined story that says more about the company and its future direction.

Having a comms team, be they part of the company or a trusted external agency, dialled into to the company’s corporate calendar here is critical. They can advise on where the major milestones are from a media perspective, connect those with the right messages, or releases on the product roadmap to make the most of the periods of heightened media interest in the brand. These are valuable opportunities and good communicators can make sure they aren’t missed.

While in politics it remains difficult to say whether the electoral or parliamentary arithmetic has changed, all parties have had an unusual opportunity this year to rebrand and reposition themselves ahead of an election, and most used it wisely.

Our team of technology communicators are well-versed in helping businesses manage their reputations through repositioning. If your business is coming up to a major milestone, or you’re considering a rebrand, get in touch with the team at Babel PR to ensure you’re getting the right messages, to the right people, at the right time, and generating maximum impact.