The inevitable erosion of the Trudeau brand

—Eric Blais on when the selfies and quirky socks become too much, and what it means for other purpose driven brands.—

“This is the age of the brand and you can’t beat the Trudeau brand,” said Lorne Bozinoff, president and CEO of Forum Research, back in 2012. This election’s results raise serious questions about whether that is still true. Because there was no winning yesterday, just degrees of losing.

What happened? Trudeau the person could not match the unrealistic expectations of Trudeau the brand.

In 2010, David Axelrod, who was then Barack Obama’s senior advisor, is reported to have told the White House Social Secretary to stop talking about an Obama brand. “The president is a person, not a product. We shouldn’t be referring to him as a brand.”

Similarly, advisors to Justin Trudeau reject the notion that the person is a carefully managed brand. Kate Purchase, Trudeau’s executive director of communications and planning, told The Guardian: “At the end of the day, he’s not a Nike sneaker. He’s a leader.”

They are both right and wrong. Of course, politicians like Obama and Trudeau are not products, but they are most certainly brands. They have been marketed as such and, in Trudeau’s case, he’s clearly his own brand manager. 

Trudeau was born a brand. As the son of a prime minister who was a pop culture phenomenon, it’s in his DNA. University of Victoria associate professor Alex Marland borrows from commercial marketing, and calls this a “brand extension” of his father.

Trudeau himself candidly speaks the language of branding. “Never underestimate the power of symbols in today’s world,” he told documentarians in God Save Justin Trudeau. The MP for Papineau who won a boxing match, and the PM who appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, could teach a Masterclass in branding.

But while Trudeau has a cult following, that doesn’t make him a cult brand. He certainly has true believers, but one of the core elements of cult brands is loyalty that is sustained over time, as opposed to fads that are unsustainable. Trudeaumania 2.0, which peaked halfway through the mandate, was unsustainable given the harsh realities of governing.

Trudeau and his advisors were so successful at branding the person as a champion of democratic idealism, they created a celebrity brand. But there’s always a risk in going too far with fame for a politician.

Back in 2008, John McCain attacked Barack Obama, calling him “the biggest celebrity in the world,” before asking “but is he ready to lead?” It didn’t work, but it points to the risks associated with achieving celebrity status for a politician. It’s incongruent with the serious business of governing, and reinforces an image of a too-carefully managed brand that is inauthentic. Both the Conservatives and the NDP made this point in their attack ads during the campaign. (It was right there in the headline of the Conservative campaign: Justin Trudeau, not as advertised.)

Twenty years ago, the concept of personal branding was a novel idea. Management guru Tom Peters had announced a “new era of the personal brand” in a Fast Company article boldly titled “The Brand Called You,” in which he wrote: “If you’re going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, that you’re proud of, and most important, that you can shamelessly take credit for.”

The Liberals bet they’d get credit for their accomplishments over the past four years, but voters were trained to focus on the Trudeau brand instead. He was the first PM to make posing for shameless selfies part of the job. Over time, it can lead to overexposure and become an irritant. After a while, the selfies and the quirky socks may have been too much for some.

Despite the rationalization consumers give market researchers for their brand choices, their decisions are rarely rational. They’re driven by the emotional connections they form with brands.

Trudeau could run because of his name, and became prime minister largely because of his charisma and the idealized vision of Canada he promoted. His brand’s erosion may have been the result of scandals and broken promises, but it may also have become ethereal. This election brings it down to earth.

Charismatic brands have a higher purpose and come across as deeply caring about everything. That’s a high bar. The story of the Trudeau brand should be a cautionary tale for so-called “purpose-driven” brands. These brands want to make the world a better place, not just sell stuff. But they can’t just say so; they need to show it by acting on their beliefs.

Over time, consumers will be able to tell the difference between brands saying they are purpose-driven from those that actually are.