Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks to the media at a ceremony for the commencement of parliament in Bangkok on May 24, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thai News Pix/Panumas Sanguanwong

As consumers, we are witness to impactful branding every day. Branding is the reason we automatically connect Singapore Airlines with exceptional in-flight customer service and the iconic “Singapore Girl.” It’s why a Starbucks cafe in Brunei will have a similar “look and feel” as a Starbucks at the company’s global headquarters in Seattle – the same vanilla latte, the familiar green color scheme, and the famous mermaid logo will be found in all Starbucks outlets, no matter where they are in the world. Companies and consumers alike, they all understand the importance of branding.

Even as recently as a few years ago, political branding in Asia was not well understood. Political parties’ use of branding and communications tended to be functional and wide-ranging, rather than engaging and customized. But over the last couple of years, governments and political parties in Asia have started to up the ante, hiring or engaging the services of industry experts to help provide branding guidance for their political campaigns.

Over the past year, political branding in Asia has been a topic of interest, with major elections taking place in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. Based on what we have seen, it is safe to say that governments and political parties in each of these markets have now come to understand that branding is critical for their success (or survival).

With the results of these election still fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at how certain political parties in Asia successfully adopted branding best practices to improve their popularity and garner votes. As we’ll be able to see, just like consumer and corporate brands, political brands must also adapt to a new era of digital and social, reaching out to young professionals and millennials, and being impactful and authentic with their branding.

Millennial-focused (Thailand)

The millennial generation is the largest, most diverse and educated demographic to come of age. In regards to decision-making, millennials are the most independent generation – they are the least likely to “stick with the norm” and are most likely to open their minds to new choices. The business world has already realized this and spends significant time and resources trying to positively influence this demographic.

Government and political parties have come to realize that millennials are not only influencing the business world, but are also uniquely positioned to drive a fundamental shift in politics as well. Millennials are now on the frontlines of political and cultural change.

Thailand’s newest candidate, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and his new Future Forward Party received outstanding support during the recent elections, exceeding all expectations. The party received the third-highest share of the popular vote, even overtaking the old and established Democrat Party.

Much of this success was due to the party’s millennial-focused branding campaigns, which focused on key topics and conversations that millennials would care about the most – adventure, equality, inclusivity, diversity and social responsibility. Future First won a significant number of votes, engaging effectively with Thailand’s youth and millennials with focused brand campaigns.

Establishing trust (Indonesia)

In business, it has been shown that brand authenticity helps build trust in an environment of intense competition, where numerous promises are bandied about as brands try to outdo one another. Customers usually feel more secure backing brands that display a certain level of authenticity. Accenture’s “Purpose-Led Brand” report (2018) showed that most customers value authenticity, outspokenness, and strong leadership. Customers often accept mistakes or imperfections committed by the brands they support, as long as they are seen to be authentic.

Similarly, political parties and politicians also need to deliver an authentic brand story and image, delivering clear statements of promise, showcasing their beliefs, and providing access and transparency to the public.

In Indonesia, recently re-elected President Joko Widodo indicated that the foundation of his election successes was a combination of his humble beginnings as a slum-born furniture manufacturer and his eventual experience and success as a businessman, helping him master the art of marketing and branding, but devoid of hype. Addressing the media, Widodo shared his opinion that political marketing was like product marketing, covering branding and trust building. He explained, “It is similar. Building public trust, and drawing sympathy … that`s what I have done before.”

It is widely agreed that the basis of Widodo’s popularity is his down-to-earth and authentic personal image. Most politicians are populists and we often see them pivoting and being flexible with their personal preferences in order gain the popular vote. But in Widodo’s case, he has always stayed true to what he feels comfortable with – from eating at street stalls, to staying in budget accommodation when traveling, to openly sharing that even in his position, he would rather not spend time socializing with the influential and elite, preferring instead to listen to heavy metal music, ride his bike, and spend time with his grandchild.

It is clear that Widodo’s authentic personal brand image was a key contributing factor in helping him with his re-election as the president of Indonesia.

Establishing a unique identity (India)

Every year, corporate and consumer brands are facing more and more competition in their respective marketplaces. It is not enough any more for branding campaigns to pin their hopes on nostalgia, customer loyalty, or stock-standard company promises. They need to showcase their brands’ unique selling points and also win over their target audiences using a combination of emotive outreach and hard facts. The same rules apply for political branding. Within the world of politics, the usual promissory narratives around economic stability or growth, job creation, better health care, increased foreign investments, are no longer points of difference.

This is where developing a unique and memorable brand identity becomes so important. In India this year, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to a dominant election win, with Modi becoming the first Indian prime minister in nearly half a century to win a majority in successive parliamentary elections. Despite facing potentially crippling issues during his previous term (unemployment, economic slowdown, corruption scandals), Modi and the BJP not only overcame these issues, they won easily.

From their first election campaign, Modi and the BJP regularly stated their strategy of following the marketing and branding strategies of consumer branding behemoths such as Coca-Cola. This time around, BJP spent significant time and effort building a unique brand identity, positioning the party and their leaders as “Guardians of India” – a group that would “keep watch” over the republic and its people. They did this by backing up their brand identity statements with a steady stream of PR stories and proof-points, focusing on the party’s decisive and hardline stance regarding national security.

Social media (Malaysia)

Political brands that leverage social media and online platforms the most effectively will gain a significant advantage over their competitors. Political branding through social media has become an increasingly decisive factor in elections.

In Southeast Asia, there is no better example than Malaysia – a “social” nation boasting the highest social-media penetration rate in the region. Social media constitute the main interaction medium in Malaysia, with nearly 97% of Malaysians using the Internet to access social-media websites, according to a report released this year by the Department of Statistics.

During Malaysia’s general election last year, social media were the most dominant means for the political parties to communicate with the public. According to estimates from Malaysia’s then ruling party, Barisan National, approximately 80% of voters in Malaysia were active social-media users.

Last year, Mahathir Mohamad and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) party implemented a best-in-class branding strategy across social platforms that was designed to play to the emotions of the Malaysian public. It featured a mix of Malaysian nostalgia, highlighting Mahathir’s successes during his previous tenure, combined with future hope and prosperity. Emotionally charged advertisements regularly popped up on Facebook news feeds, local and international influencers endorsed Mahathir and the PH party on YouTube and Instagram, and regular tweets were churned out by the PH party’s representatives.

Adeline Hales

Adeline Hales is director of branding, Asia Pacific, at global marketing and communications agency Young & Rubicam, where she leads strategic brand consulting for the agency’s flagship regional clients. Her expertise covers corporate and public sector branding, integrated marketing, digital, and management consulting. Before Y&R, Hales held senior positions at top management consulting and technology firms Oliver Wyman, Roland Berger and IBM.

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