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Risky for BC Liberals to Change Brands

Christy Clark is fine with pursuing a new name for her party. Good idea?

Bill Tieleman 8 May

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

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Endangered species? Advertising experts advise against name changes.

"Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." -- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

"We should be considering and actively debating a name change in our party, and I'm glad we're doing it," Premier Christy Clark said last week. "I think we need to have a name for our party that's as inclusive as possible."

But if the BC Liberals do pick a new name they will be breaking new ground.

I can find no record in the last 50 years of a Canadian political party in power for over a decade changing its name before if faced an election.

The only major rebranding for a governing party came when the Saskatchewan Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or CCF became the New Democratic Party while ruling that province in 1961.

But that name change came when the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress created a new national party called the NDP -- and every provincial CCF wing followed suit -- not because the Saskatchewan government desperately needed an identity change. And in fact, they lost the next election under the NDP banner.

Clark should consider the example of famous brand names like Maple Leaf Foods, Tylenol and Jack in the Box.

These companies all suffered international bad publicity after poisoning deaths but you can still buy their sliced meats, pop their pills or enjoy their hamburgers -- and millions do.

Throwing out a recognized and well-established trademark is at best a risky move and at worst, devastating.

Listen to a branding expert

Global brand research agency Millward Brown has some words of warning for anyone considering a name change.

"In our experience, many brands see an immediate five to 20 per cent decline in sales, and can take years to restore levels, while others are negatively affected only in the short term," Millward Brown states online.

"Name changes often result in a drop in sales, but when the process is done well, sales can hold steady. However, if a poor strategy is followed, a name change puts the brand at risk of losing equity, consumer loyalty and ultimately market share," remarks the company that works with 90 per cent of the world's top 100 brands.

But the brand name problem for the BC Liberals is two-fold -- the 2013 election is definitely in the short term -- and they don't want to "hold steady" or just restore levels back to the 23 per cent voter support they have now, before a name change. They want to double that back to the 46 per cent they took to win the 2009 election!

So the BC Liberal Party is entering new and uncharted territory -- and potentially great political danger in ditching a brand name that successfully won three consecutive elections and almost a fourth between 1996 and 2009.

Dwindling market share

The reasons why Clark is thinking of switching rather than fighting are clear -- the B.C. Liberals are badly losing their market share of voters to competitors.

Their latest grim news came from a Forum Research poll released May 3 that shows the BC NDP at 48 per cent support versus the BC Liberals at 23 per cent and BC Conservatives at 18 per cent.

The NDP gained two per cent since Forum's last poll in April, while the Liberals stayed the same and the Conservatives dropped five per cent,

More ominously, that means the "vote splitting" argument used by Clark against the Conservatives -- that voting for the party led by John Cummins will only ensure an NDP victory -- isn't actually happening.

In fact, some of the Conservative support has bled to the NDP, not the Liberals, perhaps indicating that voters primarily want to be rid of Clark's crew, "free enterprise coalition" be damned.

That's reiterated by results showing that while 59 per cent of Liberal backers want the party to merge with the Conservatives to prevent an NDP victory, just 27 per cent of Conservatives agree.

And the poll also shows that less than one quarter of remaining BC Liberal supporters think the party should change its name before the next election.

(Ironically, a Liberal-Conservative coalition government ruled British Columbia from 1941 to 1951, before it fell apart and was replaced by W.A.C. Bennett's upstart Social Credit Party for the next 20 years.)

Forum's results indicate that while 64 per cent of NDP supporters are "very enthusiastic" about voting for the party, just 35 per cent of BC Liberals feel that way.

The Coco Pops factor

The BC Liberals may want to consider the cautionary tale of Kellogg's Coco Pops cereal in England before making the fateful decision to change names.

As explained by Millward Brown, killing an established brand name can be deadly for sales.

"Some newly named brands are not picked up on or are over looked, while some are flat-out rejected by consumers. Coco Pops, a Kellogg's cereal brand in the U.K., changed its name after 28 years for global consistency, a decision that resulted in equity and market share declines along with strong public protest."

"Kellogg's responded with a television campaign that gave kids the opportunity to vote on which name they preferred -- 90 per cent chose the original name."

"The company listened and changed the cereal back to its original name. Sales increased 20 per cent over the next year," Millward Brown reports.

So changing the BC Liberal name less than a year before the election may be the biggest mistake of all for a party increasingly known for doing the wrong thing.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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