With the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as the vice president of the Indian National Congress, the campaign for the 2014 general elections has begun. The next 12 months will see the whole gamut of political marketing come alive as the electorate will be primed to make a choice for the next five years.
But the 2014 elections will be different from the last one as this time the Congress will fight under a new declared prime ministerial candidate. And in case the BJP also decides to pitch Narendra Modi as its candidate (taking the recent opinion polls and the Gujarat elections as indicators), then it will be the case of both the key political parties seeking mandate under declared PM candidates.
Now, the casting of the vote isn’t too different from the choice behaviour that comes into play while choosing between various brands. We choose one over another for a combination of rational/ functional/ emotional decisions. The political parties are brands that pitch their ‘propositions’ to the voters and they make their choices. Hence the ‘Congress brand of politics’ et al. In a presidential system it is ‘people brands’ instead of parties, so it is brand Obama or brand Clinton in the US.
In that context, the 2014 elections could end up becoming a choice between Brand Rahul against Brand Modi as against simply being Congress vs BJP.
Taking the Congress first, the electorate therefore would need to be convinced in 12 months to make a choice in favour of Brand Rahul if the Congress has to come back to power.
How does it stack up for Brand Rahul right now? Just like a brand, what values does he/ can he represent that will work in his favour? What’s the promise/ proposition that he holds/ can hold for the different segments of electorate to become the preferred choice?
The first thing is: What are the values that Gandhi can ‘naturally’ represent? The core values of youth and dynamism are a given because of his age. But what the brand stands for beyond these is what is not crystal clear right now. That’s what will be critical in the next 12 months.
Let’s look at what are the values he can ‘possibly’ represent. His reluctance towards joining the UPA government could become his biggest advantage as he can be the symbol of ‘change’ or ‘a new way’ in spite of being a part of the ruling party since he wasn’t really a part of the establishment. That is one promise he can hold out to everyone, even those disillusioned with the current government. The criticism for being an ‘outsider’ in politics could again become an advantage in the current state of disillusionment with politicians in general. Not being seen as a seasoned politician also makes him more ‘clean’ than others and not ‘more of the same’.
Absentee values such as ‘experience’, ‘stature’ or ‘toughness’ would be the weak points and would have to be countered.
But there is something much more powerful than these values and that emanates from the way we make our brand choice decisions. The role of emotions. More often than not, our decisions to choose brands are more emotional than rational. This becomes more pronounced in voting as a choice behaviour.
Was Obama a rational choice or an emotional one for the various segments of voters who voted for him? Undoubtedly, an emotional one (especially for women, blacks, Hispanics and a lot of young voters). There are voter segments which vote less cynically and more emotionally such as the youth, women voters, rural voters and the elders. Being youthful, earnest and promising, Gandhi at this juncture will make for a more evocative emotional choice than a rational one and if they are successful in doing it then it will be advantage Rahul.
Like any strong brand, the ability to become an emotional choice depends on what the ‘myth’ of the brand is. Originating from the Greek word ‘mythos’ it represents the ‘narrative’ that the brand represents. It is what people trust. It is what they buy or choose. All iconic brands have a strong ‘myth’ (not to be confused with the English meaning) or ‘narrative’. And successful people brands have their narratives that people love. Whether it was Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan or Obama in USA or Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, when they sought the people’s mandate for the first time they had a clear and emotional narrative. ‘A working middle-class hero’ is a narrative, so is ‘a slain hero’s widow’ and so is ‘mercurial rebel taking on a system’. Once created, these narratives become seeded in the campaigns, get romanticized by the media and eventually influence mass actions.
By the virtue of belonging to India’s first family which has made sacrifices for the nation, of being young, of being someone who ‘not really hankered for power’, of being the outsider in politics, there are many narratives that can be built for Brand Rahul to represent. Hence the choice needs to be carefully made so that the chosen narrative appeals more emotionally and to a larger set of voters. The narrative will then have to be built and brought alive over the next few months through his actions, speeches, his trademark styles/ manners, perhaps, a rallying slogan.
A similar task awaits Brand Modi (if BJP decides to) as well. The difference is that the narrative for Modi is already defined more sharply and the media seems to be already building it on its own. Hence the challenge will be how to evolve it from there to appeal to a national electorate.
The countdown has begun ... May the best brand win.
The author is executive vice president (planning) at McCann Erickson. The views expressed here are his personal views. He has worked on national political campaigns in 2004 and 2009.