Brand Health Check: Conservatives

With the dissolution of parliament due this week, Marketing looks at the three main parties battling for our vote. First up, Lucy Barrett examines the revival in Conservative fortunes.

After the dismal election performances of 1997 and 2001, the Conservative Party is enjoying something of a revival. For many, the turning point was the replacement of Iain Duncan-Smith as leader by Michael Howard in November 2003. Howard - a man famously described by fellow Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe as having 'something of the night' about him - has set out to make the party more electable. To this end, he has hired campaign chief Lynton Crosby, who is credited with keeping Australian prime minister John Howard in for four consecutive terms.

Since his arrival in October, Crosby has certainly made an impact. He and his team know that the number-one rule of any campaign is to set the agenda - a feat that proved beyond the Conservatives in the last two elections.

But, so far, in this campaign, they have pulled it off. Over the past few weeks the Tories have generated an impressive amount of press coverage.

Howard's crusade for Margaret Dixon's shoulder operation was the sort of human-interest story that appeals to the tabloids, as were his calls for cleaner hospitals and shorter waiting lists. As the party tries to win back the Middle England voters it lost in 1997, it has unveiled plans for a border police, immigration controls, cutbacks on 'waste' and a crackdown on 'yob culture', using the slogan 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?'.

But there are cracks in the facade. The recent debacle involving deputy chairman Howard Flight gave Labour something to crow about. His comments that the Conservatives were plotting to make more spending cuts than they were admitting caused great embarrassment at party HQ. They resulted in Flight being sacked from his role in the party and may see him barred from standing as a Conservative MP.

When it comes to the ballot box, it remains to be seen whether the Tories can mount a genuine challenge. Many voters still view the party negatively due to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and its traditional strength in areas such as law and order has been undermined by Labour's drift to the right. We asked Chris Powell, director at DDB London, the agency that led Labour to victory in 1997, and Simon Marquis, chairman of ZenithOptimedia, how the party could improve its chances.

VITAL SIGNS

Conservative General Election performance since 1979

Votes Share of Seats

(m) vote (%) won

May 1979 13.7 43.9 339

June 1983 13.0 42.4 397

June 1987 13.7 42.2 375

April 1992 14.1 41.9 336

May 1997 9.6 30.7 165

June 2001 8.4 31.7 166

Source: House of Commons Library

DIAGNOSIS 1 - CHRIS POWELL, Director, DDB London

It is the basics that drive political fortunes, and the Conservatives seem to have forgotten this.

Historically, the Tories have been seen as harsh but competent, and Labour as nice but incompetent. But the Tories lost their reputation for competence with the ERM debacle in 1992. No leader of the party tainted by that era is likely to be electorally acceptable - certainly not such a central figure as Michael Howard.

This weakness was shown in a poll in The Times. A policy close to the Tories' actual policy on immigration was generally popular, but when it was revealed that it was a Tory policy, the swing to other parties cost it 12% of that support. That is the depressive effect of the Conservative brand.

Despairing of broad appeal, the Tory campaign is seeking to maximise their core turnout by fuelling prejudices about immigration, gypsies and council tax. They are hoping to sneak in as unenthusiastic Labour voters stay at home. There is no attempt to reach out to the middle ground.

REMEDY

- Break from the past. Choose a new leader from a new generation. The politicians from the John Major era are unlikely to be electable.

- Regain an aura of financial and economic competence.

- Abandon the narrow and petty focus on right-wing policies for more mainstream and broadly attractive themes.

- Make an attempt to reach out to the middle ground.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - SIMON MARQUIS, Chairman, ZenithOptimedia

The Conservative brand has been relaunched so many times since the 80s that nobody seems able to remember what it stands for.

Whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher, her Tory brand did what it said on the tin. Under subsequent 'brand managers', it has struggled publicly with its product formulation, packaging, advertising and PR.

With the Tory brand in disarray, New Labour snatched brand leadership in 1997 (scooping up a load of Tory product features on the way), and in spite of several gaffs it has maintained it ever since. Mr Blair has convinced users that he really does wash whiter.

But, thanks to Lynton Crosby and party co-chairman Lord Saatchi, Michael Howard is fighting a passably effective election campaign. In a world dominated by the media, politicians' personalities have become more important than their policies. Howard is a decent man, but many of us cannot forget him dodging a straight question from Jeremy Paxman 14 times. These things count in the polling booth.

REMEDY

- Keep up the guerrilla tactics - they seem to work.

- Make the tax-cut policies credible.

- Stop being so pompous and stiff - this is 2005.

- Don't underestimate the Liberal Democrats, however batty they seem.

- Try not to look too smug when unveiling new posters.

- No more Flight-style cock-ups.

- Uncover some gob-smacking muck on Reverend Blair.

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