Can you brand a Parliament?

As someone lucky enough having grown up in a country with an old parliament and now working for a younger one – I must admit I have never question their presence. Naïve, I admit, as democracy needs to be protected and strengthened on a daily basis. Still, for me a parliament, well I more or less take it for granted – it’s just something we have and always have had.

But as we are drawing closer to the 2014 EU Parliament elections, I ask myself can you raise the number of voters by branding the EU Parliament? The relatively poor turnout in the European elections is a problem as it ultimately is a question about legitimacy for the parliament and its decisions. But should you at all brand a parliament? Can you brand a parliament? Is it maybe the elections that should be branded? And can you separate the two?

The reason for why I started muse on the subject is the because I participated in an event organised by the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament where the issues of raising the number of voters and how to communicate on the European Parliament were discussed. One speaker made me jump when he described how they had gone about in the Czech Republic, where had they used pictures of dead chickens wrapped in plastics to show what the Parliament had achieved in consumer protection. When I queried what on earth the thinking behind was he couldn’t answer, but explained they were part of a bigger campaign devised by Sholtz and Friends on the theme “European Elections – it’s your choice!” and the aim was to raise the interest for the elections to the European Parliament and hopefully get a higher electorate participation in the 2009 elections.

As you can see, the chickens were one of 13 outdoor advertising proposals. And all I can say is, well… the brief seemed OK, but did they at all do some studies before the launch? Apparently in the Czech Republic the chicken with the text was the favoured choice, as it was thought to be. However, in France the preferred choice was the unlabelled chicken because the French chicken consumer assumed that if the chicken is unmarked they reckon it is the “green” choice. BTW, if you have the time, look at the viral films. Although, I am fairly convinced they didn’t go viral at all. Now, I don’t question for a second the difficulty you stand in front of when addressing as culturally diverse audiences as the in EU27. I am intentionally speaking about culturally different because I am not so sure that the demographics are that different.

The result of this campaign was the European Parliament feeling more was needed and have since hired three agency consortia to further raise the EP:s image or as it is said in eurolingo “promote understanding and awareness of the European Union’s parliamentary institution.” All according to Holmes report. While this is a four year contract, so not geared only towards the elections as such, the 2014 election will come in the middle of this four year period I should be surprised if they were not a part of the brief. But is more information about the European Parliament what we need? Won’t we suffer from EP inertia and a general voting fatigue? Today a normal voter can vote in communal, regional, national and European elections. Already there are worrying signs that absenteeism is raising, in the recent local elections in Belgium figures as high as 25% was reported. And that is in a country where voting is compulsory. I don’t think it’s because the issues doesn’t engage, but that the actual event of voting is no longer interesting.

So I return to my initial questions – Can you and should you brand a Parliament? Or is it a wrongly phrased question – it is the elections that should be branded? I have no answers myself, but I feel it is a question that should be asked and debated.

One response to “Can you brand a Parliament?

  1. As quick summary to answer your questions – branding Parliament is essential for the EU, promoting participation in elections should be a separate but aligned initiative and the EU requires an overarching branding initiative.
    More detail and context:
    If I may, as an informed outsider make the observation that a mistake has been made in thinking and assuming that the EU elections process, parliament and institutions is something that is familiar, understood and known to its key audiences. The reason for the mistaken assumption can be easily understood. It would have been natural or logical to assume that it represents a simple extension of the well established democratic process and institutions of the member states. An approach that assumes that it is all new like in a new democracy would be of more value and deliver better results.
    One can and should apply a branding approach and discipline to the communications and positioning (marketing and advertising optional) of a parliament. This is something that is often taken for granted as parliaments tend to be long established institutions that have gained a brand profile and value over time.
    The South African parliament still meets in the same building/ space as it has always done yet the perceptions about it and the symbolism of the images associated with it has changed significantly over the last 20 years. This was not achieved through association with the historical changes that took place but it was also the result of a proactive and consciences effort and investment to rebrand and position parliament.
    BUT!
    Be careful not to apply a simplistic product and services branding approach. This requires a branding approach that is similar to a nation branding approach (not destination marketing or tourism promotion). It is important to note that this is an initiative that should be viewed as an investment that will deliver a return over a medium to long term horizon.
    To achieve the short term objectives of voter participation requires a separate initiative that should be aligned with the branding of parliament but not just an extension of it. The nature of this initiative should be more of a marketing initiative with elements of branding. If one looks at examples where democracy and elections have not always been an accepted norm one will find many examples that serves as a good reference point/ case study (the South African experience is one of these).
    The one element and I believe critical issue that is missing is an overall EU branding initiative and framework. This would help to enable other initiatives and provide an framework for alignment ensuring more effectiveness and efficiency of all communications and positioning initiatives that collectively shape the EU brand.
    I hope my comments provide you with some food for thought and are of value. I tried to keep my comments brief but this is a multidimensional topic. If you have any specific questions I would be happy to share some more of my thoughts based on my experience in helping to establish the South African nation branding initiative.

    Gilla

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