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The building and re-building of brand Thatcher - and why the Tories need it so badly

It's better to have 50 per cent love the brand, and 50 per cent hate it, than 95 per cent not giving a damn

The former American vice-president Walter Mondale, who was on the receiving end of the Reagan landslide presidential campaign that blew the Democrats off the map, once said that image in politics was like cement – when it hardens there’s almost nothing you can do to reshape it.

Despite the ruthless matricide that ended Margaret Thatcher’s reign in Downing Street, the image-making that helped put her into Number 10 in 1979 and helped create the enduring myth of the Iron Lady,  has never let up.  The Mondale principle has meant that a prime minister regarded as eventually toxic and damaging by her own side is now a near-beatified Lysander who provided an unhappy land with the heroine it craved in an hour of need.  The brand magic for Thatcher continues to work because re-allocating reality delivers what all political consumers want – something to believe in.

The journey of the state funeral – because that is what it is - between Westminster and St Paul’s is only the latest element of a work-still-in-progress which aims to ensure the image of Baroness Thatcher is reshaped, reworked and capable of being rolled out whenever Conservatism requires an iconic brand it can turn to.

David Cameron, long hesitant on the merits of Thatcherism, nevertheless knew he had no choice last week but to reach out and acknowledge the timeless value of the celebratory pictures that will sell every Tory the promise of returning glory.

A great leader, a great prime minister, a great Briton, he said, telling the Commons she had not simply led Britain, “she saved our country.”  The Iron Lady, since her forced departure, has evolved into what brand curators regard as the Holy Grail – a cultural, emotional connection that still possesses enough meaning to become a solution, or even a returning saviour.

A full page advert in the Sunday Times at the weekend offered a gentle nod of recognition to those who built the Thatcher brand. In black and white, with just a hint of tears in her eyes, and waving a small Union Jack, the words underneath the image were concise: “The best client we ever had.” The small company signature tucked into the corner read M&C Saatchi. 

If there is anywhere in Britain where a flag should be flown at half-mast for the duration of the televised funeral, it is above the Mayfair offices of Bell Pottinger. Tim Bell, then a young account executive with Saatchi and Saatchi, helped turn an unsellable, shrill Tory matron into an armour-clad vision of  radical free enterprise, market-driven government and the true-blue champion of redemptive capitalism. 

Bell, effectively the Essex who installed and worshipped the warrior Queen in Tory Central Office,  of course takes no credit, claiming “nobody could have moulded her.”  But Bell, if he knows anything, knows about brands. As the advertising guru David Ogilvy observed “Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”

Bell helped create the initial brand strategy, the first effective equity in Thatcherism, the emotional relationship, and the Tory right’s full-on re-capture of Britain’s national pride. The polling figures throughout Thatcher’s three election victories back up what most marketing executives almost instinctively know : it's better to have 50 per cent love the brand, and 50 per cent hate it, than 95 per cent not giving a damn.

So when the objections pile up against our austerity-hit economy spending £10m on the first grand ceremonial funeral of a politician since Winston Churchill in 1965, and some get angry at Big Ben being silenced as a mark of misplaced respect, this doesn’t challenge the Thatcher brand, it fits it rather well.

Divisiveness is part of the complexity of brand imagery. The funeral’s quasi-regal pageantry, the faux attempt at cross-party respect, the guaranteed idolatry that will come from the broadcasters, especially the BBC,  will all take place against a likely sea of protest and mass policing and security. Negative in brand terms? Not at all. 

The electorate can longer “purchase” Maggie Thatcher on polling day. But it requires regular updating to keep the project she started relevant. Any successful brand is supposed to be timeless; it cannot be ignored if it is expected to still capture hearts and retain meaning. To describe a state funeral as a consumer opportunity sounds crass and disrespectful, but that is what it is to brand imagery.

It’s just as disrespectful to the wider global political community as saying Baroness Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War, or that she saved Britain £70bn by threatening the European Union with her handbag,  or that Britain’s public debt and international status were transformed by  her grocer’s-daughter approach to understanding and installing the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek.

Consistency and truth play lesser roles when you try to dissect the magic of brand maintenance.  How did Thatcher morph and change from the  dominating headmistress who led cabinets stuffed with weak and often insecure public school boys,  to the toxic she-devil dumped by her party, to a socialism-banishing Boudicca demanding all-comers' respect?  That is the long-term job of the political historian.

In the shorter term, for those with interests closer to the heart of her brand of Conservatism, the important thing is that we not forget her. The  Conservative Party, soon after her departure, recognised she had taken much of their identity with her - and have struggled since.  So the real work may have begun the day she waved goodbye to Downing Street: and it will continue all along the route from Westminster to St Paul’s and beyond.

Thatcher, like Churchill, is a high-value asset. Tory brand managers  have spent three decades investing in her, and believe she can still, even in death, generate the elusive grail products of politics –  faith and hope.  Charity of course is to be found elsewhere.