It's time Billy the Fizz took some lessons in marketing

And until he does, the Conservative Party is likely to remain a troubled brand
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The Independent Online

Hello, Tosh: wanna vote Tory?"

Hello, Tosh: wanna vote Tory?"

"No, too aggressive."

"Well, how about: Conservatives. Probably the best party in the world. Should attract the pub vote."

"But what about families? Well, a lot of pubs have family rooms now ..."

"No. How do we attract them?"

"Oh, that. How about: The Tories - fun for all the family."

"But we also have to secure the Singles Vote, the Ethnic Vote, the Rural and the Urban Vote, the ..."

"Right. How about: The Conservatives. Where do you want to go today?"

That last slogan would suit the Tories today more than any of the others I've just mentioned. The voters must be very confused after the statements of recent months, the resignations and the interviews. We've had them talking tough on the family, only to discover that their own party members think they have been too tough. We've got used to William Hague the health-conscious judo fanatic, only to discover he's Billy the Fizz, the boozer from Rotherham. Are the Tories the party of compassion or the hardliners? Is their leader keener to sell himself by his six-pack or by his 14 pints? Where does this leave their "positioning" in the political "market"?

And here I apologise to the purists who believe that marketing has no place in politics: it does and it always has had. It is not a 1990s subversion of the Truth. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is perhaps one of the greatest slogans of all time.

But good marketing requires focus; and that needs consensus among a brand's owners. Today, Tory consensus is notably lacking; so, instead of devising intelligent strategies to position their brand in a compelling and persuasive way, they are trying to differentiate themselves by the way they act, but without any clear thinking behind it. The brand is not anchored in any recognisable point of view. And a brand without a point of view is no brand at all. It's just another product.

A famous brand, be it Fairy Liquid or Levi's 501s, is famous because it has a strong point of view that it wishes to promote: an attitude, a set of values, an angle. Marketed well, the brand and its point of view become one and the same thing. And that isn't just something consumers notice and buy into; competitors notice it as well.

In having a clear point of view, a brand carves out a territory that it occupies and eventually it can even own. Competitors are then forced into claiming their rights to the consumer's attention with your brand's values, implicitly or explicitly, as a reference point. For years, Levi Strauss represented youth values: sex, irreverence, rock 'n' roll. And all other jeans brands had to either copy them or contradict them. If they copied Levi's, they were guilty of me-too marketing, which rarely does anything more than reinforce the supremacy of the major brand. But if they tried to contradict or debunk Levi's and find some other way through to the consumer, they also had problems. For not only had Levi's claimed its own territory, the territory also reflected the whole jeans market. Levi's had harnessed the generics of the market and made them its own, and now no other brand could take that ownership from them. Power, indeed.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it seems to me that the Conservative party right now is one hell of a troubled brand. It is flailing about - and that reveals its lack of strategic thinking. Ask yourself: what is the Tory party's image? What are its values?

I know what the Conservatives feel about individual issues (sometimes), but I am less sure about what the party feels about itself. The impression conveyed to the man in the street - or at least to this man at the keyboard - is one of checking what the Blairite brand leader is up to before having to make that difficult "copy or contradict" decision. And even when it does make the decision, it frequently appears to change its mind shortly afterwards.

The Labour Party seems to be pretty popular with business. So the Tories become the party that understands the small businessman better. Fine, except that this is a pretty hollow claim when few are criticising the performance of the brand leader.

The Labour Party spins humanity and, as luck would have it, even manages the first Downing Street birth in more than a century. So the Conservatives become the caring party - until Ivan Massow, with his tales of cold-heartedness, leaves it to join Labour.

Moments later, or so it seems, the Tories notice that Tony Blair has both more street cred and is more of a toff than William Hague. So out come the tales of a misspent youth: a bit of a lad, our Billy the Fizz, always out with marauding gangs of crazy canvassers, bunging leaflets through people's doors, running away and then downing another dozen or so pints of Yorkshire's finest.

And where does he choose to reveal this new insight into his ever-changing persona, this appeal to the Common Man? Why, where else but in the august organ that champions all things plebeian: GQ magazine. That will get the Sun readers' vote. It all adds up to a complex set of contradictions but, to the Conservatives, this seems not to matter. A political party is, after all, a great deal more complex than a pair or jeans or a pint of bitter. And the relationship that voters have with it cannot be compared to the relationship a drinker has with a beer.

Yet it can. Marketing is all about taking products which the creators feel are very good and very important and trying to convince others, who do not share the originator's zeal, that they are worthy of a few moments' consideration. And while I fully accept that my life will be more affected by bad economic policy than by a dodgy pint, I know which I understand more and which is more likely to hold my attention. Which is why the more complex the proposition, the more there is a need to simplify and focus the brand's communication. In the political market, a focused brand is most readily glimpsed through the actions, attitudes and utterances of the leader. Love her or loathe her, you knew what Margaret Thatcher stood for. You couldn't always articulate it, of course. It was less about instances and more about attitude: less about "what" and more about "how". But Mrs T was clear, and so her party and what it stood for was clear to the public also; while John Major was not as focused, and nor, indeed, was Neil Kinnock.

To date, Tony Blair seems rather more able to perform this role of the inspirational marketing man. He has his detractors, of course; but most of us know what he is about. Above all, whether we agree with him or not, we feel he has a "grip". Why else would he be so astonishingly successful in the polls so late in his term of office?

Brand leaders set the agenda in their markets, and the also-rans are forced into obeying the rules that the big guys dictate. And that, sadly for William Hague, is where he and the Conservative party sit right now.

Twenty years ago, a copywriter friend of mine, who worked at what was then the Conservatives' agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, mischievously tried to devise the weakest, pappiest slogan he could think of as a stark contrast to the strident reality of the Thatcher years. Strangely, I can imagine its blandness currently finding favour at Central Office: The Conservative Party. Nice little party should you ever want to vote for it.

Martin Smith is CEO of the advertising agency Grey Worldwide.

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