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Can a New 'Brand' Rescue the NDP?

'Brand Command' author Alex Marland recommends a name change... and a new colour.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 31 Mar 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

If the New Democrats ever want to form Canada's government, the party needs to undertake a complete re branding, argues a political scientist and author.

Memorial University professor Alex Marland's new book Brand Command examines the strategies and effects of political branding against the backdrop of Canada's parliamentary system.

Political branding refers to a party's efforts to have voters associate it with certain ways of thinking or policy.

In his book, Marland argues that party concerns about staying "on brand" -- and exerting strong discipline on candidates and MPs to stay "on message" -- have muted Canada's parliamentary system by taking away sitting members' rights to level even slight criticism at their own party's policies.

The trend contributes to centralizing too much power at the top of the nation's political organizations, he asserts.

In the book, Marland also explores how such brand control is used to successfully court voters.

Some parties do it better than others, he said. And one in particular needs a lot of work. The New Democratic Party, Marland said, has to do more than just tweak its image and pick a new leader.

Last October the NDP lost its status as official opposition to the Tories after holding a lead in the polls earlier in the year. The party's chances vanished over the course of the campaign when it lost the battle for the political centre to the Liberals.

Part of the loss, Marland said, was a result of mixed messages from the NDP on where the party stands.

"It's not even about a leader; it's much bigger than that," he said. "They need to be very clear on what they stand for."

Since Tom Mulcair took over the party leadership in 2011, some have taken swipes at his centrist moves, such as uncritical support for Israel and the decision last year to campaign on the promise of a balanced budget.

Dissent has boiled over in some pockets, including in Mulcair's home province. Earlier this month a gaggle of Montreal party organizers, former MPs, and members signed an open letter calling on the party to change direction.

Burnaby MP Peter Julian is among others who have proclaimed unwavering support for Mulcair when he faces a leadership review at the party's convention next month.

A 'terrible' name

Such turmoil makes it hard for voters to trust the party, Marland said. "You're still dealing with a brand that doesn't really know what it's doing."

It's not enough for the NDP just to solidify its positions on the political spectrum and find a balance between being able to draw people from the centre and keeping those on the left -- a frequently offered prescription.

If it wants to win, Marland said, the NDP needs a top-to-toe refit -- and maybe a new name.

"New Democratic Party is a terrible brand name," he said. "It's existed since 1961, I'm not even sure what's new about it now."

Avoiding acronyms is important in party branding, according to Marland, and the NDP's acronym is even worse because in French it becomes the NPD. Inconsistency hurts the brand, he said.

He suggests the party simply become "the Democrats," to make it snappier and show it's a party championing democratic values.

The party of purple?

The colour orange has to go too. Of course, red, blue and green are all already taken. What's left?

"I think the NDP would be a lot smarter to go with the colour purple," Marland said. "Purple is a colour that has often been used by progressives." He offered examples on the municipal scene, such as Olivia Chow and Nasheed Nenshi who both used the colour.

Nik Nanos, president and CEO of polling company Nanos Research, agrees the NDP needs to better define its brand with voters to have any hope of winning, though he stopped short of agreeing it needs to go as far as a name change and new colour rinse.

Nanos said Canadians have ingrained opinions on what their established parties stand for, and whenever a party has strayed from voters' expectations, it pays -- the NDP particularly.

"The New Democrats have always been punished when they deviate from their brand," he said. "Tom Mulcair announced he was going to balance the budget and still have a significant childcare spend. That was not consistent with their brand."

Polarizing political brands are often successful because people know what to expect, according to Nanos.

As well, he said the Liberal party won October's election not by reinventing itself, but by going back to its traditional role as a big-tent, inclusive party that isn't afraid to run deficits.

In Nanos' view, for the NDP to win, not only has it got to do a good job in opposition, it also needs the Liberals to have a tough time governing, in order to send progressives looking for an alternative.

In the meantime, if Mulcair remains as leader after the convention, Nanos' advice for New Democrats is to highlight his experience and the party's strong showing on provincial levels.

But getting the NDP to heed such advice could be difficult, said Marland, because the party typically does not like change.

Recalling the so-called 'orange wave' when Jack Layton was party leader, he said it happened during a time when the NDP was marketing and branding more than in the past, but that it was a new development.

It's a reluctance the party needs to overcome, he said.

"They don't tend to think about the marketing side of things," he said. "But where they are (now), I'm not so sure staying the course is the right way."

That thought will likely be on many members' minds as the clock ticks down to next month's convention.  [Tyee]

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