Smug-Face, Wallace, Katie Hopkins And Toad Of Toad Hall - What Do Politicians' Personal Brands Tell Us About Them?
The Debrief: We spoke to a personal branding expert to find out what our party leaders' faces tell us about them...
Ahead of the General Election, we’ve now got five leaders to choose from. And yes, we’re going to hold our hands up and say that yes, in 2015, either due to the fact Barack Obama’s a massive babe or because the internet means we see so many of our party leaders’ faces all the time, politics has become a personality contest, and yes, when it comes to personality, image is just about everything.
Who knows what these politicians are getting up to behind closed doors, right? We might as well take them at face value. But what is their face value?
We asked Jennifer Holloway, a personal brand expert, a lot of questions, to find out.
Oh, and just in case you don’t think politics has become a popularity contest based on image, she has this to say before we begin: ‘People want personality from their MPs. Not long ago there was a respect for the Royal family, the establishment and MPs. Now it’s open season – if we can find something and put it out there, we absolutely will. So people are looking for the more human side of MPs.
‘While MPs could once get away with delivering the what – credibility, knowledge, experience – they now have to deliver the who. Who are you when you’re bringing these things, what are your values, motives, beliefs, what’s your behaviour like?’
What do you think of him, close-up? ‘When he’s smiling, he does have a good, open face, but if the camera catches him at the wrong angle he can look a wee bit smug.’
Why does he look a bit weird in casualwear? ‘You’re a party leader and all eyes and judgment is on you, sometimes going away too far from your formal personal brand doesn’t work so much. He has to tread the tightrope to balance his personal brand but still represent the party brand.’
He goes casual and does the whole ‘Call me Dave’ to appeal to more people. But does it work? ‘The jeans – still with brogues – say “Hey, I’m a regular guy!”, like “I’m taking the kids down the park!” which works because there’s still an element of formality. But he goes too far when his packaging – his voice, his formal background – jars with the casualwear. People’s brains want consistency from brands.’
If he were to be going bald, how would that affect perceptions of him? ‘It’s hardwired into our DNA to see hair as a sign of virility, and in fact, recent research shows that every president since a certain point has had hair and they’ve gotten taller. A study of the Fortune 500 CEOs, called ‘Silverback CEOs’, shows that many from the top-performing companies are over six feet tall and run marathons. They even found a link between deeper-toned voices and the value of their share prices.’
The Lib Dems are polling at 5%, is this because of Nick Clegg? ‘If you JUST take the personal brand, away from his politics, he’s doing very well. He has a formal background but a younger look, he’s gentler than David Cameron and does well in debates. Plus, he has a sense of humour.’
Where did it go wrong, brand-wise? ‘So many people voted Lib Dem at the last election and are now wondering why. It’s not that Nick Clegg’s brand hasn’t delivered, it’s just that the party’s been steam-rolled and hasn’t delivered.’
Have we got an unfair perception of him? ‘Cartoons seem to influence how we feel about politicians and at least in The Times, Nick Clegg is always the Etonian’s whipping boy. It does colour our view of him, we begin to think, “How are they treated behind closed doors?”’
It’s fair to say we all have a certain perception of Ed, at least image-wise, right? ‘If you didn’t know who he was, you’d go, “Oh, that guy looks like he’s alright, quite well turned out”. But it’s so stuck in our minds that he’s Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.’
What about the way he speaks? He had surgery at the beginning of his leadership to make his breathing clearer, after all... ‘His words say he’s passionate about things and believe in them, but the delivery is saying, “Hello, would you all like to go to sleep now?” He’s now got the policies but the delivery doesn’t match up.’
He’s become more vocal as a leader recently, how does that affect things? ‘He didn’t hit the ground running. He’d won the competition against his brother, but it was like, “OK, you’ve beaten your brother, people say he’s got more credentials than you, but you’ve got this, what are you gonna do now?” And there was nothing, just silence for a long time. He’s now got policies, but he’s trying from so far back now. I feel sorry for him.’
You mention David Miliband, who himself was pilloried for holding a banana at a jaunty angle while leaving a Labour conference. Would you say most of Ed Miliband’s public appearances look like that one moment? ‘Ed Miliband with the bacon sandwich has really stuck, it still gets referenced. You just imagine Wallace with his bacon sandwich. Ed’s not a bad looking chap, but he’s coming from a long way back.’
He’s a bit Toad of Toad Hall, isn’t he? ‘Yes! Like him or not, he differentiates himself by saying, “I am not like these other three” and he’s happy to go out looking like a cut-price laird of the manor.’
But he’s managed to convince people he was never a City banker... ‘Whereas David Cameron is old school, part of the old boys’ network, Nigel Farage is old style, going back to the old values, appealing to the older generation. While he’s wealthy, he’s not got a plum in the mouth. Little things like going to the pub, smoking, visually bring him to the working men’s classes a bit more. His appeal spans a wider class spectrum than some of the others.’
Some say Boris Johnson’s popular buffoonery laid the way for Farage’s popularity. ‘With Boris, if you look at the black and white, that man shouldn’t be trusted to get up in the morning. But people like that human side with him. Humour works to building a rapport and connecting people quickly. Likewise, Farage has that down-the-pub, having-a-banter aspect to him.’
Is it all good for Farage and UKIP, then? ‘The political brand isn’t matching his personal brand. People say it’s full of crackpots and loons and every other day you hear so-and-so from UKIP has said this or done that or lied. I used to work in corporations, and there was one useless person who didn’t pull their weight. At first people grumbled about the individual, but after a while, people start blaming the boss and say, “Well, why aren’t you doing anything about it?” There’s a transference, and you wonder, “Why is Nigel Farage hiring these idiots?” His decision to take them on in the first place makes you think he’s the idiot as much as they are.
Could he ever rise to real power? ‘I personally cannot see the UK will ever let him walk out of number 10.’
We don’t know much about her, do we? ‘She seems unseasoned with the media, which can work against her. But from this, she’s got the scarf softening her look, yet looks like she means business. Apart from the make-up. It’s one of those statistics you hate to say, but research from Harvard University found that a woman who is bare-faced seems less competent than a woman with make-up on.’
What’s the reasoning behind that? ‘It’s a thing called skin polarity. When you look at the eyes and mouth, they’re conveying the message, and if there’s a bigger difference in skin tone between those areas and the skin around it, it’s easier for people to read you and trust what you’re saying much quicker.’
And on a simpler level? ‘A bare-faced look is quite Green Party, I must say, but it’s implying, “I’m just doing this in my spare time.”’
She looks a bit like Katie Hopkins, what does that mean for potential voters? ‘Our brains have reference libraries; we take on broad signs, say, a person who smells of smoke getting into a lift with us, and our brains look up in the reference library how we interpret this. I don’t like them, so I react negatively. We use shorthand, too. So as with Ed Miliband, we see Wallace from Wallace and Gromit and therefore we think he’s like Wallace, and if we think Natalie Bennett looks like Katie Hopkins, we might think she is like Katie Hopkins. In the absence of information, we can mentally label someone.’
Register to vote here: gov.uk/register-to-vote
Like this? You might also be interested in:
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating