A party by any other name

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It’s reasonable for the NDP to wonder whether it isn’t time to refresh its brand name. Yet most political parties enjoy such a high level of brand recognition, it might seem foolish to tinker with such an iconic trademark.

A company might re-brand if it finds itself slipping in public recognition or up against a bigger, savvier field of competitors; re-branding becomes a technique to nudge consumers (“Hey, remember us? We’re still here!”). Or, a product may undergo re-branding if it is overhauled enough that it’s actually changed (remember the ‘New’ Coke?).

My concern is less about an NDP name change and more about how the discussion surrounding it seems perilously apart from any real reflection about what lies beneath (or doesn’t).

Is there anything profoundly new or changed about the NDP product?

NDP packaging has already undergone improvements since the tightening of branding discipline within the party. Under Brad Lavigne (now NDP National Director) these recent years, the communications team cracked the whip to improve how (and how consistently) the party looks and sounds. Isn’t that far enough to go at this point?

Lawrence Martin says a name change for the NDP would be like a “new coat of paint”, but that’s more like a cover-up than a “shakeup.” And while a recent G&M poll indicates that an NDP name change “wouldn’t hurt” (hardly a reason to favour something), I’m more interested in how it would help. Because help sure is needed.

Is it about attracting more people to the brand? People who became disloyal to the brand over the years aren’t likely to wander back because of a new name, nor would non-NDP voters switch allegiances because of one (says the aforementioned poll). So much for the WHO.

Ian Capstick suggests the name change is an effort to take a critical look at HOW the party is operating. That gets us somewhere more evocative. But while the HOW is an exceptionally relevant problem, another question matters more. Still from a branding-as-marketing standpoint, I’m not convinced the party is willing to discuss the WHAT.

At the federal level, the NDP seems unable to yank itself out of the quicksandy matter of what exactly it’s fighting for. To aspire to Opposition or Power, that is the question. There, I said it. And it is in that quicksand that debates over messaging and strategy get stuck. It is where intrepid change-pushers have lost traction, energy, even hope.

Is the party willing to wade into that muck to once and for all solidify a chief objective? Because new brand loyalists are potential voters who need to believe that the NDP believes it can win. Updating its attitude and asserting anew its intentions and credentials -- now that might sway a voter or two.

Since Jack Layton became NDP Leader, there has been a shift towards the kind of ballsy approach I think the party needs. Campaigning language finally took on a new kind of confidence: Layton has had the nerve to suggest he and the party could govern. That we know what to do and can do it. That we are more than a party of progressive ideas and values, we are leaders.

Just this afternoon, Layton told convention delegates in Halifax that ‘we are going to define our roadmap to government.’ But that’s nothing more than heady talk unless it’s supported where counts. So when Lavigne today described to delegates the significant organizational changes taking place at the structural, staffing, and budgetary levels, things seem, well, promising. And the party’s willingness to showcase “winning conditions” wisdom today from the likes of ten-year Premier Gary Doer, more promise.

I remain dubious, though, about whether these attitudes represent an approach shared consistently at the grassroots or inner sanctum of the party. A great number of well-placed NDP campaigners believe that tailoring our efforts to achieve an effective caucus in opposition is the strategic thing to do; they question whether spreading our resources across 308 ridings under the ‘big air tight ground’ approach is worth the struggle.

Some think the NDP squandered a prime opportunity during the last federal election and that it didn’t emerge from the coalition government episode with strength. Well now, Harper’s approval rating is on the decline, Ignatieff is struggling to crack the low ratings of his predecessor, and the Liberal brand has never been more indistinguishable from the Conservatives.

Seeing timely prospects and hungry for serious electoral success, NDP supporters want their party to finally seize the moment.

The product I’d be excited to knock on doors to sell is one that says more confidently than ever before that we are ready to govern. And to put action where our mouth is, we need to focus on nourishing a grassroots mobilization machine that masterfully combines retail politics with modern methodology (as the Obama strategists keep telling us).

In the field of competitors, the battle for dominance may be an electoral one, but the branding of parties is far more than ideological. A party’s brand (and product) has as much to do with its leader and tactics as its policies. To really mean something, a new party name must be deeply entwined with a strategic upgrade of the NDP’s electoral objectives, operations, and messaging.

That’s why I figure we have much bigger problems to worry about than what to call ourselves. I, for one, will be cheering on the delegates in Halifax this weekend to get downright deep about how to once and for all kick some serious electoral ass. And if they decide that a new name is a critical part of that winning plan, I’m in.


Pam Kapoor is a Gatineau-based communications specialist. She has been a part of the NDP since she wore diapers and has worked NDP campaigns in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec.

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