14 October 2021

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Last week, after a conference speech big on optimism and humour, but lacking in detail and policy, the media piled into Boris Johnson, whilst his supporters cheered every word and polished gag. 

And this week, UK lawmakers have slammed the Government’s early response to Covid, labelling it “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever had”.

It’s led many to ask, or indeed to ask again, just how does Boris remain so popular? 

Well, whatever your politics, whatever your view on the world and whatever you think of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, there is no denying that Boris Johnson has an enormously powerful brand. 

People like Boris. People remember Boris. 

And because of this, when he makes mistakes, it seems that people often forgive Boris.

Any smart marketer will tell you that if people like your brand, they are more likely to buy your products; more likely to justify paying more for your products; recommend your products to others; look past any mistakes you might make; and generally, give you the benefit of the doubt.

When John Lewis (who consistently top YouGov’s Best Brand Index) screw up a delivery, the goodwill they have built up as a brand, means many people will likely forgive them. 

When Sports Direct screw up, there’s likely less forgiveness. Only shouting about continuous sales and low prices, whilst ignoring your brand, can be a dangerous game.

In retail, having a strong brand is everything, especially in turbulent times. And the same is true in almost every category, including politics.

And currently, it seems there isn’t a brand in UK politics that can compete with the populism of Boris. 

Nobody else produces the sound bites, the eccentric and shareable bite size content, the talkability, or even the energy. 

The fact that much of this is based on some form of buffoonery seems to be irrelevant. 

We may wish that we selected our political leaders purely on policy, skillset, and character, but that’s not the real world. Brands can be immensely powerful and emotional beasts.

Boris’s ‘us against them’, Churchillian style optimism is a form of British populism that’s either fortunately natural, or expertly created. 

Either way, it’s a brand formula which resonates with a large chunk of our country.

It’s hard to imagine the Brexit campaign being successful without the backing of the Boris brand.

Like all strong brands, Boris has branded assets. His scruffy hair is one. It’s ownable, stand out, and uniquely him. But surely his name has become his biggest branded asset.

When US President Joe Biden recently met the Prime Ministers of Australia and the UK, President Biden forgot Scott Morrison’s name, substituting it with “that fella down under”. 

Nobody ever forgets Boris’s name.

In fact, there are very few politicians known just by their first name (although ironically, Boris is actually his middle name). What an advantage that has given Boris Johnson. 

It was Ken Livingstone who first came up with the idea of publicly available pay-as-go bikes in London. But the rebranded Boris Bikes is the name that stuck. Powerful stuff.

So, how powerful is Brand Boris, and can it be challenged?

Many people suggest that Labour is suffering from a form of identity crisis. And for all his efforts, and despite being seen by many as a decent and honest guy, Keir Starmer hasn’t appeared to cut through where he needs to.

In Jeremy Corbyn, Labour did possess a clear focus, a clearly articulated brand, and gained a strong brand following. But it proved to be too niche a brand for Britain, and not popular enough to win.

There seems to be a clear space for Brand Boris to dominate British politics.

But Johnson strategists no doubt remain on their toes. Successful brands need constant fuel and topping up of goodwill. Brand love does not last forever. Especially for ‘challenger brands’, when they become the mainstream. 

The brands of Thatcher and Blair, both immensely powerful and successful, showed that even the strongest political brands can implode. And very quickly.

Although rather than Thatcher or Blair, Boris Johnson’s populist brand is more often compared to that of Donald Trump. And at their heart, both Trump and Boris are challenger brands, doing things differently. 

Trump was clearly a political outsider and disrupter. And even with an Eton and Oxford education, Boris Johnson has somehow managed to play a similar role. 

They both use non-PC language, say things that others wouldn’t dare say, and likely wouldn’t get away with.

And at different times, they’ve both been said to be bulletproof.

But Brand Trump was tumbled, as he doubled-down on his messaging, focused only on Trump loyalists, and became more extreme, ignoring the middle ground and the need to continue growing his support.

Will Boris make the same mistakes? Or will we see a ‘decade of Boris’, with his brand continuing to grow, adapt, and win over doubters whilst maintaining his core support?

Of course, only time will tell. But with Britain attempting to rebuild its brand on the world stage, in the post Brexit era, the success or the demise of Brand Boris will be a major influencing factor.

Written by Jamie Williams.