Ukip and the power of challenger brands

Mike Cooper, the global chief executive of PHD, gives his view on what marketers can learn from Ukip and the theory of challenger brands.

Nigel Farage: people buy into the UKIP leader's grounded nature says Mike Cooper
Nigel Farage: people buy into the UKIP leader's grounded nature says Mike Cooper

There are two dangers when broadcasting your observations about political parties, as I am currently doing. The first is that people may think that this is a declaration of your allegiance. It isn’t.

The second is that, if read by the people leading the parties, they may actually act on it. It is unlikely, but I certainly hope they don’t.

Notwithstanding all of this, I am still compelled to write this piece as I believe what we are seeing happening within the political landscape across the UK, and in parts of Europe, has the hallmarks of challenger-brand thinking. More on that in a moment.

Right now, there seems to be a vast amount of collective head-scratching going on across the media and in Westminster itself as to whether or not Ukip’s recent success in local and European elections represents a seismic shift in British politics or is simply a protest vote on a large, well-organised and well-funded scale.

What does Ukip's success mean?

Despite the impressive proportion of the vote Ukip achieved, the jury still seems to be out. Part of their success in the European elections can be explained through Ehrenberg Bass’s concept of mental availability – as in, people associate Ukip with issues to do with Europe, such as open borders and immigration laws, therefore Ukip are simply more likely to come to mind when a vote is framed in a European context.

This success, amplified by the media, will, of course activate the herd and backing-the-winning-horse mentality across the population, thereby propelling UKIP further forward.

But arguably more interesting, is that UkipP’s success owes something to the power of challenger brands in politics. This concept is very powerful as it is has an active emotional dimension.

Challenger brands, if operating to their maximum potential, can incite and activate a collective catharsis that can become contagious. From where there is no way back – the world has to change. Ukip are not there yet. But, if they were to follow the path of the challenger-brand thinking, they could potentially gain even more traction.

If we look back at previous major gains in elections, a challenger positioning is often easy to see. There are none more apparent than Tony Blair with New Labour in 1997. It was a stake in the ground at a moment in time. The message was: "We’ve hit rock bottom and are led by a grey, ideas bankrupt cabinet that lurches from one scandal to the next. We need a new breed of politics and politicians for the new dawn".

They were challenging the relevance of the old establishment to the current time. It worked very well for a while.

Challenger narratives

PHD produced a book and an app two years ago with Adam Morgan, the author of 'Eating the Big Fish' and in my opinion the world authority on challenger brands. It was called 'Overthrow' and looked at ten different challenger narratives brought to life with case studies and recommended communications behaviours and strategies. It is immediately clear that New Labour played the role of the next generation.

Overthrow: an exploration by eatbighfish and PHD

Nick Clegg, in the last General Election, had a clear challenger type too – Game Changer. Despite where his party is now, at the time he promised reform from within the system. He was going to challenge the way voting was conducted and MPs elected.

He was charismatic on the debating platform and he promised a new land for politics. His stance was so convincing it led him to becoming king maker once the votes were counted.

Challenger types

The question is, which challenger type are Ukip? Or more importantly, what path might they now follow?

When I used the challenger brand app, which allows you to work out which challenge type you are, Ukip came out as The People's Champion. This stems directly from Nigel Farage. He is what people are buying into. I believe his stance on Europe, despite getting the headlines and the other parties in a spin, is not the main driving force behind his popularity. It is his grounded nature in which he blends in with the everyday man that forms the bond with the people.

He conducts his interviews in the pub over a pint of ale, he’s often seen smoking as he walks between meetings and he frequently wears civilian clothing, a direct challenge to the customary suit with red, blue and yellow ties.

His policies are positioned as being for the people of these shores. Despite obvious criticisms of his policies, which are easily attacked as xenophobic at best, he provides a message that a significant proportion of the electorate seem to want to hear – that he will look after his own. His irreverent, human and very public challenge to the faceless Brussels bureaucracy, now with 1.5 million You Tube views, simply reinforces this. It’s classic challenger behaviour.

He is one of the people and for the people. And by understanding his challenge, he creates a clear purpose that people can identify with.

But if Ukip really wants to fulfil the potential of The People’s Champion, they need to make some significant changes.

Ukip election poster 2014

About them not you

The People’s Champion must be about the people, and all about the people. Therefore, any senior members that have, or are currently, putting their own interests ahead of the country’s interests must be moved off the bus.

Authenticity and consistency

The vision has to be shared by all and everyone must genuinely believe it. Belief, or lack of it, seeps out. Success can be used as a guide and a motivator to align people.

Clearly expose the interests of the market leader: shining a spotlight on the market leader’s interests is important to give structure and depth to the fight. It places the negative focus firmly on "them". Keep refreshing the message and keep it topical. Use humour to keep your voice from joining your opponents’ voice. Stay on the side of the people in tone as well as message.

As marketers, perhaps we can learn something from this

It is no coincidence that the main parties, who are failing to rally decent numbers to the polling stations, are the ones whose challenger type is less obvious. Again, in 'Overthrow', we say, "if you don't have a purpose then you don't have a strategy", and it just isn't clear to the people what the other parties’ purpose really is.

Without that sense of purpose, without it being clear what exactly is being challenged, the connection between brand (or in this case, political party) and consumer is weakened. And the ballot box stats show this in abundance.

Long term, the big problem for Ukip will be how to preserve its challenger stance as it attempts to become more mainstream. Ukip is better as a challenger of opposition than as a proposition and it is a much harder feat to continue to challenge the status quo if you happen to also lead it.

After all, political parties are not like consumer brands. In the ever-cynical, cutting world of politics where every word is under a media microscope, how long can a challenger positioning be preserved as policies get blunted by the realities and trade-offs of the real political environment?

Just ask Tony Blair.