Last November, Dorothy Corbeil was recruited—and very willingly, she’ll tell you—to burnish Justin Trudeau’s political brand. The retired registered nurse, who lives in Golden Lake, Ont., won a contest posted on Trudeau’s Facebook page to dine with the Liberal leader, along with four of her friends; they agreed to be filmed for a video now on the party’s website.
Corbeil, a long-time Liberal voter—the first ballot she ever cast was for Pierre Trudeau— admits to being somewhat star-struck meeting the boyish 42-year-old politician at an Ottawa restaurant. Trudeau, whom she describes as “genuine,” “well-informed” and a “great listener,” put her at ease. Conversation over good food and wine (Trudeau nursed a beer) ranged from the criminal justice system to work-life balance, though specific policies weren’t discussed: “Justin said, ‘You don’t have platforms until you’re in an election.’ ” The three-minute video, Dorothy’s Story, exudes a calculated folksy vibe. Trudeau identifies Corbeil as part of the embattled middle class that he wants to protect, the platform of the party’s 2015 campaign: “Dorothy is exactly who I’m working hard for every day. She deserves a government that is listening to her, that cares for her.” Corbeil praises Trudeau’s empathy: “It’s so nice to have a politician who connects with us on a human level,” she says.
Trudeau’s ability to connect—and Canadians’ seeming desire to reciprocate—is being fully exploited by the Liberal machine. “Justin is very, very saleable,” chief Liberal fundraiser Stephen Bronfman, a Trudeau friend and adviser, told the media last summer. “He’s got a great name and people want to find out who he is.”
The eldest son of a legendary—and polarizing—prime minister signals a Canadian first: a political leader whose marquee value eclipses any Parliamentary or legislative accomplishment. It is perilous terrain—such as when the family man was dangled as sex-symbol bait at a “ladies only” $250-a-ticket fundraiser in November where guests were invited “to (really) know the future prime minister” with a suggestive wink. The female organizers were called out for being “sexist” toward women, but if anyone was being objectified it was the candidate.
Yet presenting Trudeau as a gift to be won has increasingly proven to confer value. Dinner with Trudeau was a top prize in a December Liberal fundraising drive, along with 12 “limited-edition” Justin Trudeau scarves (also available for $27.99), that raised more than $1-million, and led to the party’s best quarterly result since 2004. Party spokesperson Andrée-Lyne Hallé reports 20,593 first-time donors contributed in the nine months ending Oct. 31: “These numbers show us that the Liberal party and its leader are attracting new support and interest all across the country,” she says. A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey showed Liberal support at 34 per cent, the scandal-enmeshed Conservatives at 26 per cent and the NDP at 24 per cent.
The selling of Trudeau-as-product represents a watershed in Canada, even in an age when political currency is measured by whether voters can imagine having a beer with the candidate. Political scientist Alex Marland views the branding of Trudeau as a precursor to the marketing-driven, consumer-based political model in the U.S. “Dinner with Justin,” for instance, clearly borrows from “Dinner with Barack,” which isn’t surprising: Obama campaign director Mitch Stewart consulted with Trudeau’s strategists during his leadership bid. “All politicians engage in image management,” says Marland, pointing to Stephen Harper’s love of hockey and the fact Trudeaumania was stoked by the Liberal backroom. “But with Justin Trudeau it feels more commodified. You hear ‘brand’ used to describe him in a way you don’t with other politicians. I think it’s because a brand has so much emotional connection with people.”
The Memorial University professor examines the topic in a paper, “What is a political brand?: Justin Trudeau and the theory of political branding,” which will be a chapter in his upcoming book about branding in Canadian politics. “Trudeau’s unique selling proposition is the fact he is a humble celebrity who loves Canada and is enthusiastic to serve its citizens,” Marland writes. “This is backed up by a remarkable ability to engage people in person and online.” But Trudeau isn’t simply a brand; he’s a line extension: “[Justin] has his own strengths but he’s Liberal leader only because of his last name,” says Marland. “On the plus side, there’s a significantly reduced learning curve and energy the party has to put into its communications.” Among the minuses is the fact Trudeau is measured against his father’s legacy as an outlier and “philosopher king,” two descriptors that don’t apply to the son.
Marland writes that Trudeau’s current avoidance of policy commitments could be strategic: “If Justin sways too far from his father’s brand image or policy positions he risks alienating Trudeau loyalists, and there is no pressure of a pending general election.” Disavowing his father’s unpopular policies (the National Energy Program) while advancing the theme of a “just society” (the decriminalization of marijuana) hugs the parent brand.
Still, the focus is squarely on “Justin,” not “Trudeau,” specifically “Team Justin,” with its reference to Twilight’s “Team Jacob/Team Edward.” Trudeau’s team understands the power of the sort of imagery that contributed to Pierre Trudeau’s mythology: his pirouette behind the Queen, wearing a red rose, paddling a canoe in a buckskin jacket.
His son referenced the latter optic in a tweet annoucing that he and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, were expecting their third child this spring; it was accompanied by a photo of the family in a canoe. A GIF of the couple boogying backstage at the Liberal leadership convention that went viral echoed images of the American first family. And images of Trudeau hugging Canadians—and literally feeding the poor at a Vancouver soup kitchen in December—serve as stark contrast to the emotionally remote Stephen Harper, who refuses to field questions from opponents or the press. By travelling outside “the Ottawa bubble,” as Trudeau puts it, he’s rarely in Parliament to even ask questions. This is likely a conscious decision by his handlers, says Ottawa-based political consultant Robin Sears: “Justin Trudeau is not very good in the House.”
Instead, he’s become a roving “unpolitician,” an earnest reformer more tactile than tactical, brandishing EQ, not IQ. Still, the message is carefully edited, seen in Barbecue with Justin, a video made on the Vancouver deck of fisherman Doug Hamilton. As he dines on grilled salmon and hoists a pint, Trudeau defines himself as a father first (“I am not in politics in spite of my children, but because of them”) while exuding positivity: “People are cynical about politics, but we’re Canadian, so it doesn’t sit right for us to be cynical,” he says. Millennial Colin Walker enthuses that Trudeau is “a lot different than most of the politicians I’ve seen on TV.” Hamilton says he’s never met a politician so “personable and genuine,” adding, “I’d love to take him out fishing.”
Branding consultants who cleave to the premise that the party, not the candidate, should be the brand, voice skepticism. “Developing Trudeau as a personality around which a cult might form likely won’t fly in Canada,” says Bruce Philp of Toronto’s Heuristic Branding. Voters here are not as inclined to cults of personality as Americans are, he says: “We’re tough on people who try to be charismatics; I’m not sure Pierre Trudeau could get elected today.”
Sears notes Trudeau has yet to prove himself a serious adult politician. “He hasn’t given a serious speech, he hasn’t given a serious interview, he hasn’t written anything of consequence.”
Still, focus on Trudeau’s EQ hasn’t hurt the Liberals; the party intends to continue staging events where Trudeau “reaches out to people and tries to engage as many people as possible,” says spokesperson Hallé. Sitting in the Vancouver sunshine at that prize-delivered barbecue, Trudeau presents himself as the front man resuscitating a diminished Liberal brand: “The one thing I was good at—connecting with people—was the thing the Liberal party had to do again,” he says. In this, he’s merely the catalyst: “The only thing exciting about me is the fact that Canadians are excited; and that’s what matters,” says Trudeau modestly, before turning to his fellow diners and asking: “Who wants more salmon?”