“Boris” the most powerful political brand of our times

“Beware the Smile of an Englishman” James Joyce

The wholly grail for a marketer is when the public, especially your customer targets within it, adopt a slogan and start using it colloquially. Remember Heineken and “Reaches the parts ” or Carlsberg with “If Carlsberg made…” ? Drinks seem especially strong in this area but so can politicians be.

In the 1980s everyone knew who “Maggie” was just as a few decades earlier they knew “Winnie”. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has achieved the same. The rental bikes in London introduced when he was mayor became known as “Boris bikes” and now he is Prime Minister he’s known as “Boris” by all – it’s a branding triumph.

Whatever darkness lies behind the brand name (and in Johnson’s case there’s plenty) you can’t deny its brilliance. It’s distinctive, which a brand has to be, and in its sector unique. Johnson is the “Guinness” of politics unmistakable and unique. “Maggie” was the same.

When your brand enters the vernacular you’re winning

When we know people well we refer to them by their first name. Even if we haven’t actually met them. There’s only one “Harry” for a Spurs supporter. There was only one “Fergie” for a Manchester United fan. In politics this is fairly rare. Blair was always “Blair” not “Tony” and that applies to his detractors and opponents as well. It’s difficult to use the name “Boris” in a negative way which is why many of us who are resistant to his charms him try to say “Johnson” – it’s not always easy.

Brand “Boris” is familiar though it is a veneer covering little of substance. In the 2019 it was associated with the “Get Brexit Done” slogan and the image of Johnson on a bulldozer driving through a wall was perfect symbolism. Boris will get things done was the take out, and it worked.

Sir Keir Starmer also has an unusual first name and he does have the opportunity to build a “Keir” brand but I’m not sure it will work. He really isn’t superficial enough, and the “Sir” doesn’t really add to what is already a cerebral and quite elitist identity. But “Boris” doesn’t have to explain himself – he may appear to some to be a shallow buffoon but for most he’s “Our Boris”. His very shallowness is part of his strength. He’s a bit of a card and distinctive and visible. He looks a shambolic mess most of the time but that’s a positive – his visual identity isn’t “man of the people” at all but it is unique and wholly consistent with the singular brand name. There’s no one quite like him.

The brand that most relates to Boris Johnson is “Marmite” – something of a cliché for something you like or loath. Marmite cleverly turned this aspect of their brand identity into a campaign. Are you a “lover” or a “hater” they asked. Give us a try and find out. It’s the same with Boris – we are mostly sanguine about giving the old fraud an extended trial. Is he as fireproof as he seems – the opinion polls suggest he may be. The Conservatives remain comfortably ahead in the polls – despite everything, and that’s quite something.

Brand Boris is an asset that only appears once in a political generation. Charismatic power is effective and difficult to challenge. Churchill had virtually no opposition during the war, his leadership and his power were based on his charisma. Johnson is no Churchill but the power is similarly based, as is the powerful visual presentation of his distinctive brand.

The only consolation I can offer is that the rather dull, cerebral and Starmer-like Clement Attlee trounced Churchill in 1945. At some point voters may see through the image and view what lingers beneath it. But that is unlikely to happen until 2024. By which time the transformation of Britain into a nationalist loner of a State, for which grinning Boris is the front man, may have happened. As James Joyce put it :

“ Beware the horns of a bull, the heels of the horse, and the smile of an Englishman.”

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