Where is Labour’s Steve Hilton?

by Peter Goddard

“We need a new brand.”

It’s a question marketers often dread from a customer. This is because, nine times out of ten, what they are really asking for is a new logo, a strapline and a colour scheme.

This is not a brand. Marty Neumeier in The Brand Gap defines a brand as “A person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company,” which is as good a definition as any.

Because the brand is, in fact, this relationship with the customer, it is vastly more likely to be the defined by a customer’s experience with your organisation than by your “look and feel”.

Of course, your logo is part of this. If your brand is your personality, your logos and straplines can be likened to your clothing. An outfit may be useful for forming a first impression, but eventually you will be judged by your actions.

This is something clearly understood by Steve Hilton, the nearest politics currently has to a new master of the dark arts since Peter Mandelson’s glide back into the shadows.

Hilton managed to turn around the popular view of the Conservatives as the nasty party and re-invent David Cameron as an electable prime minister. Whether it was hugging a hoodie, doing aid work in Africa or talking about “voting blue and going green”, something worked.

Enough voters changed their gut feeling about this Tory leader to put David Cameron in number ten.

When Hilton started making his changes, Labour was dismissive. It was just public relations trickery. Underneath the lick of ad man’s paint, they were still the same old Tories.

And since the election, the government’s record in office does indeed seem to have borne out what Labour was saying.

An austerity drive, for which we are all supposedly in it together, does not sit well with the offer of a new yacht to an old lady on her 60th year in the job.

Taking a hatchet to public sector spending may make sense to a world-view where the private and voluntary sectors hold the key to efficiency and the delivery of a better Britain. But when the hand that wields the axe pauses only to hurl fistfuls of tenners at a financial sector viewed as venal and unrepentant, the fairness narrative collapses.

And when the party that changed its logo to a tree to demonstrate its commitment to the environment, slashes funding for solar energy by 70%, its green credentials go up in a puff of polluting smoke too.

Even Tories have joined in hating on Hilton.

For some it’s old-school Tory horror of a man sans tie going shoeless in the office – dangerously continental or, even worse, American. But for most, Hilton has become a caricature of a “blue sky” thinker or perhaps more accurately, a random idea generator, with the emphasis on random.

There is an emerging consensus in politics that Steve Hilton and his talents are doing more damage to the government than good.

The lesson Labour seems to be taking from this is that the party has no need of a Hiltonesque box of shiny tricks. The emphasis needs to be on substance not style. Branding is bad and advertising types best left on screen in Mad Men not in the real world of politics.

But as with much conventional wisdom this is totally wrong. It’s an analysis that fundamentally misunderstands what Steve Hilton is and what branding means.

If you look at the ideas popping out of the Hilton brains trust, there is nothing random about his thinking. His ideas feed a clear narrative of liberating businesses to be successful, and for business success to be predicated on an ability to contribute to society.

He was explicit about it in his pre-Cameron marketing consultancy, Good Business, writing “We have always believed that the most responsible businesses are those that embed their values throughout the company, in a way that aligns closely with business goals, rather than those that treat it as an add-on.”

In the Labour party, we might not sign-up to his beliefs or the policies to deliver them (though there is little in his personal agenda that could not have been spoken by Tony Blair), but there is clear method and little madness.

Steve Hilton’s problem is that his client has happily taken on board the pictures and slogans that were offered, but forgotten to improve the most important aspect of brand – the customer experience.

The failure here is not his, but the Tories’. They have failed to take the brand that he created, and that the voters chose, and bring it to reality in government. The voters have now experienced Hilton’s Tories, and found them not as caring, compassionate or green as promised.

This kind of mismatch between the brochure and the experience is toxic to any rebranding effort, and where Steve Hilton has failed it is because of the Tories failure to translate talk into action.

For Labour, the true lesson from Steve Hilton’s experience is the opposite of what many commentators are concluding. There doesn’t need to be less branding but more – it needs to flow through everything the party does.

Labour used to have a brand – New Labour. This defined the visuals, the words and the policies of the party. Critically, it was based on a policy outlook that then informed the linguistic and visual identity of the brand.

The public’s experience of the last years of Labour in government, combined with trajectory of the current leadership has well and truly junked this brand.

In itself, this is no bad thing. Brands need to be refreshed and updated to reflect their times and often this is best driven with an irreversible break.

But nothing has replaced New Labour. Where there was once a clear brand, understood by the public, there is now a vacuum.

And as in nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Regardless of what the Labour party might intend, in the absence of a clear identity, the public will revert to what they know.

Same old Labour.

It’s a condition Steve Hilton would recognise it from his early experience with David Cameron. The marketing challenge faced by Labour today is remarkably similar to what Cameron had to contend with when he assumed the leadership of his party.

Now more than ever, Labour needs someone who understands what branding means and how to apply it wholeheartedly to the party in what they say, how they look, the policies they present and even how they behave internally as an organisation.

Those are big shoes to fill (figuratively speaking – actual shoes are strictly optional), but they need to be filled soon if the party is to stop being defined by stereotypes long past their sell-by date and start looking like a future government.

Peter Goddard is a sales and marketing consultant

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9 Responses to “Where is Labour’s Steve Hilton?”

  1. swatantra says:

    You can keep your Steve Hilton. What matters is a genuine product and people having faith in that product. The Tories got a makeover but they are still the Party of Nastiness and they are still snakeoil salesmen. Just look at the seried ranks of Tory Benches in the Commons and tell me different.
    The problem Labour has is to convince its own members of the genuineness of their product before they can go out and sell it to the public on their doorstep.
    And KISS is the only message the public will understand.

  2. Albrait says:

    What a load of twaddle, what planet are you on and when last have you visited earth. The Tories despite their spin could not get a majority and they are now struggling to keep up with the lie of compassionate cons. As to New Labour, the public or at least those in the labour party who are socialist fell out of love with it from as early as ’98’ so nothing about your article holds up. Focus on getting behind the leadership rather than the nonsense you are trying to peddle and perhaps the Labour party as opposed to those with an agenda can help to improve the lives of those who are in need.

  3. frances smith says:

    i think that you also need to see this as a branding issue, as steve hilton, like mandelson, has become contaminated, as a brand.

    if you really believe that miliband needs someone in charge of marketing i suggest searching for a job name that is less contaminated.

    and lets leave out the daft policy ideas, because the problem with hilton is that his economic ideas aren’t “nice” and so cameron had to be nice by being seen to be supporting issues that are usually associated with political correctness, which is actually seriously undermining the cameron brand, as it annoys his party, but does not bring him any liberal voters, because of the thatcherite economics. not that he needs any help to undermine his brand, as he is doing just fine by himself.

  4. Jane says:

    I agree with this article. Tony Blair on had a clear brand – take on the Tories on their safe ground. Be the party of aspiration, business friendly and law and order. He persuaded many people to vote for the party because he changed the brand of state intervention, anti business etc etc. It was a message understood by the electorate. As you say David Cameron changed the Tory brand of being the nasty party and he won votes.

    What is the brand of the current leadership. An intellectual group similar to student days with concepts bandied about in debates which are wonderful but hardly representative of a party in waiting to be in government. A party that reacts to situations rather than leading? Old Labour comes to mind and who wants to spend. A party that loves opposition. This is the brand they have presented – ghastly.

    You would think those in the leadership would have learnt having been in government. Tony Blair had a clear message – it paid off he won three elections. Gordon Brown floundered but look at the difference in the message when he brought Peter Mandleson back. He steadied the ship and gave a clear concise message regarding what the government was trying to achieve. It was thanks to his message that Labour did not lose so many seats at the last election.

    You are right – there is no brand and no clear message. Just a jump on every bandwagon on policy areas that the last government kicked into the long grass despite the millions spent on reports. A party that fails to understand the taxpayer’s concerns about spending.

    not surprising….

  5. Peter says:

    Spot on, we should absolutely learn from the mistakes of the Tories botched and ill complete attempt to detoxify. Their failure to secure a majority had more todo with just how toxic their brand was to start with.

  6. Mike Homfray says:

    Hopefully, existent only in the imagination of the author of this ridiculous piece.

    The new Labour approach failed. It only achieved electoral success because the Tories were utterly unelectable and riven with conflicts. In fact, after 97, the one off only voters drifted away and they were joined by a chunk of the core vote in 2005 and 2010. Blair’s message lost voters in every election and when he left parliament, he was exceptionally unpopular and thought of as a liar.

    If voters wantr a business friendly party of aspiration, (read ‘pro-capitalist and pro-greed’) then they will vote for the Tories. Jane clearly supports tory ideology, and so she should vote Tory. It is our role to provide an alternative

  7. swatantra says:

    We should not be in the business of opposition for oppositions sake.
    We should be in there doing the right thing. Thats our role.

  8. John P Reid says:

    At the ’87 election it was revealed that Labour had won the campaign and lost the election, AS Norman Tebbit pointed out for the Tories o have won another landslide despite this, What labour was offering ‘must have been A lousy prduct then’

    All credit where it was Due to mandleson and co. for organsiing the 87 election But nick raynsfored new what Tebbit was saying was right, that no matter how hard laobur tried they couldn’t get off the tag that what laobur stood for wasn’t A serious government, that’s what Ed miliband has to prove

  9. Dan Hodges says:

    …and now where is Cameron’s Steve Hilton…

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