Co-opting popular brands to amplify one’s public image is a time-honoured practice among stumping politicians. By this point of every campaign, the floors of Tim Hortons coffee shops are worn thin by the feet of photo-opping candidates—especially in battleground ridings—while the chest of every leader has borne the crests of at least a couple of local NHL teams.
More novel, though, are moments when a party and a non-political entity combine forces in a kind of mutual branding effort, as the Conservatives did on Monday with Home Hardware stores. At the company’s semi-annual trade show in St. Jacobs, Ont., dealers and owners from the chain’s 1,100 outlets welcomed Stephen Harper to a stage where Conservative campaign colours shared backdrop space with the company’s iconic “HH” logo. When the PM began talking up his party’s proposed permanent home-renovation tax credit, they whooped with approval.
Later, Harper took media questions in the company’s flagship outlet, where blue-and-white posters bearing the Conservative slogan, “Protect our economy,” hung prominently among the saw blades and doorknobs. Red-jacketed company officials stood at his side as if on guard.
The shared benefit of this spectacle was easy enough to grasp. For Home Hardware, the home-reno tax credit represents a potential windfall; they’re the source of two-by-fours and nails for many a Canadian embarking on a ground-floor makeover. For the Conservatives, it reinforced their brand as the party that closely identifies with your day-to-day life, and will help you make it better.
But it also demonstrates how the line between our roles as citizens and consumers is blurring, as political parties borrow the methods—and, in some cases, buy the data—that private marketers use to reach and persuade us. Author and newspaper columnist Susan Delacourt explores this phenomenon in her newly published book, Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, noting that “the parties paying close attention to marketing trends [are] more successful than those resisting marketing’s influence.” The marketing world, she explains, devised ever better ways to reach customers through the early 2000s, which American political operatives began borrowing and adapting. “Finally,” she writes, “Canadians would import the techniques north of the 49th parallel.”
By marketing, Delacourt means more than slick advertising. Increasingly, parties are drawing from the self-same data used by store chains, charities and major institutions to target customers or clients. They’re the bread crumbs you drop whenever you buy gas, open a bank account or order a laptop online and, when compiled by independent research firms, they hold enormous value. “Consumption data will reveal who is spending money, where, how often, how much debt is involved, what magazines do they subscribe to, what memberships do they have,” explains Matt Thomson, a brand and marketing expert at Western University’s Ivey Business School. “Companies entered the era of ‘Big Data’ several years ago, and political parties have now also joined. We have entered the era of citizens as consumers.”
Our preferences, in short, can then be read as a set of desires and values that parties exploit with narrow-casted messaging. If you live in the suburbs with a young family, for example, you can expect to receive pamphlets detailing the Conservatives’ sport and recreation tax credit—just as you might get flyers advertising a sale at Sporting Life. If you buy diapers online, the NDP would like to tell you about its proposed national daycare strategy. Indeed, parties and major brands often find themselves trying to reach the same people with similar messages, which poses a set of freighted questions: Should they combine forces? Under what circumstances? What are the risks to both sides? Do they outweigh the potential rewards?
Such marriages of convenience are certainly harder to pull off for some parties than others. Imagine the reaction among bedrock NDP supporters if leader Tom Mulcair authorized a giant tax expenditure—then linked arms for a photo-op with the bosses of the retail chain it benefited most. Posing Justin Trudeau on the factory floor of a wind turbine company might burnish the Liberals’ environmental brand, but it’s unlikely to broaden the party’s existing support. Wind turbines just don’t speak to our folksy hearts.
The Conservatives have run into trouble trying to brand-surf on the reputations of respected non-profits. In late August, Scouts Canada issued a statement stressing that it prohibits uniformed members from participating in political events, after a group of Scouts appeared alongside Harper at a campaign stop in Campbell River, B.C. Then, last week, the Harper campaign was accused of trying to exploit the Terry Fox Foundation with a pledge to create, upon re-election, a $35-million fund for one of the foundation’s fundraising initiatives. Party officials claimed they were fulfilling a request for money by the foundation, adding that the Fox family “enthusiastically” supported the idea. But the Fox family publicly denied making any such statement of support, while the foundation’s original letter to Harper, sent to the leaders of the other major parties, does not contain an explicit request for the fund.
Still, with Home Hardware, the Tories found what a marketer might call natural synergy. The company invited Harper to its gathering earlier in the summer after he’d announced the tax-credit policy plank—mindful, no doubt, that the visit would provide free exposure of its brand across multiple platforms in the national media. The event was not an endorsement of the Conservatives or Harper, company spokeswoman, Jessica Kuepfer, told Maclean’s, but rather a chance to “promote the economic impact our company has on the national economy.” (In a heroic attempt to express non-partisanship through brand placement, Kuepfer added: “Just like our very own line of Canadian-made Beauti-Tone paint, Home Hardware loves all colours, whether it’s green, red, blue or orange.”)
Harper, meanwhile, got to tap into Home Hardware’s nostalgic image as an anchor of numberless communities, owned and staffed by friendly locals. Many of its customers live in small cities and towns, notes Thomson—a demographic that has carried the Conservatives to power in three elections. Even its slogan, “Homeowners helping homeowners,” squares with the Tory policies aimed at boosting private-property ownership.
Both sides went ahead, despite some obvious pitfalls. Politics is by nature divisive, notes Thomson, and polls suggest Harper is by far the most divisive leader in the campaign. So, even as Harper spoke on Monday, Home Hardware was taking a shellacking on social media, with anti-Conservative tweeters promising to boycott the store. “What I see from @pmharper campaign stop in St. Jacobs,” wrote one, “is that @home_hardware doesn’t mind alienating 2/3 population & loves free advertising.”
But, given the potential sales gains for Home Hardware in a permanent home-reno tax credit, you can chalk up such blowback to acceptable risk. As for the party, Thomson allows that this kind of politicking might bring it closer to voters—that retail preferences can be a lens through which to view the wants and needs of our daily lives. But that, he acknowledges, is a pretty virtuous spin. “Realistically, I think it’s all about posturing for votes,” he says. “It’s about telling a compelling story whose truth quotient will drastically be reduced—or at least rewritten—once the polls close.”