Bland Eyed Soul: Analysing Brand Key

It was a toss-up between posting this or my short fiction story “John Key goes to prison”. I will post the story some other time.

While doing research for a few upcoming KP posts on Asia I was distracted on the weekend by Vernon Small’s article about John Key and the outcome of the Broadcasting Standards Authority investigation into a complaint about his prison rape/soap joke while on the Radio station the Rock last year and rapidly spiraled off into what you are reading now.

But it was Small’s specific comment about Key “trading prime ministerial dignity for a populist hit” that really started me thinking about what exactly is going on with our Dear Leader and his carefully crafted media image.

Because while there have been recent articles claiming that Key is “plummeting” in the polls as preferred PM the reality is that he remains well head of the rest by a significant factor and while not at the Trump level of being able to kill someone in the street it’s clear that John Key can say and do things other could not get away with, PM or not.

So yes Keys popularity is the lowest it’s ever been and there is definite wisdom in what Small was saying but that level of analysis is not enough, right now we have only four of the journalistic five W’s (who, what, where and when) while what we really need is the why.

And it’s an area which has been examined before, the why of “why is John Key so popular?” question that NZ political reporters have been asking for a long time now. And with more than a few shots at it, the best of the bunch are Bryce Edwards piece in the NBR from 2011 and Tracy Watkin’s recent look at having Key around for a fourth term but neither really dig into Brand Key.

Watkins focuses on the Key playbook while Edwards notes the apolitical nature of Key and these are both valid approaches but Brand Key needs an actual breakdown of the brand and both pieces remain rooted in pure politics rather than from John Key being commodified in exactly the same way a bar of soap is or how a pop star marketed to their fans.

So with this in mind I aim to have a deeper look into John “you have a pretty mouth” Key through the lens of advertising rather than politics.

Now full disclosure, while not an expert on advertising, I worked in the industry for a short period (creative, copywriter and catalog model*) and I have always had an interest in advertising itself as in many ways it is the lingua franca of capitalism and the true art of our age. So while I may scramble the terminology at times I am looking at Key in the same way as I looked at creating an ad when I was employed to do such.

To begin with we need to look at the key principles behind Brand Key which are: brand awareness; brand loyalty; brand strategy; brand definition; brand equity; synergy and brand momentum. These are the key (no pun intended) principles behind Brand Key. Of course these terms are the language of marketing but, in this case, underneath there is a creepy layer of politics that we will get to that a bit later.

First up is brand awareness or how aware are they of Brand Key. For Key its pretty good, he is the PM after all and he regularly appears in the media both politically and at times non-politically in tabloid/gossip publications like those found at supermarket checkouts. He also gets named on blogs like this (oh the irony) and his face is recognizable as the PM of NZ. Most of us know who he is and would recognize him if he stepped out onto the street (as he did one time in Wellington as I was walking to work). So say his name (try it five times while facing a mirror) and people will know who you are talking about. That’s a high level of awareness.

Next is brand loyalty or how loyal are people to his lizardness. This can be measured by the fact that Key has remained popular in the polls as preferred PM for almost a decade now, that not a  bad achievement despite him making rape jokes, pulling pigtails, sending in his lawyer to lobby for tax havens and all the rest of grubby little things he has been linked to. It is worth pointing out though that loyalty in public and loyalty in the party may not be the same thing as Judith Collins previous coup attempt shows that the art of backstabbing leaders remains alive and well in the National party (but they don’t call John Key the “smiling assassin” for nothing so he lived though that one).

Another point to note is that loyalty for Brand Key may not translate into loyalty to the National Party as its current position in the polls exists by virtue of Key capturing the all-important (at least for the time being) middle voter demographic on their behalf. Few if any would vote for National if it was not for Brand Key (something I noted in my previous post on the party).

From brand loyalty to brand strategy (what strategy is being used to manipulate the image of Key in such a way as to appeal to voters), we now start to get into the subtle and often unspoken nuances of Brand Key which is a combination of being apolitical (as Bryce Edwards noted in his 2011 article) and that blokey, matey, kiwi every-man quality that all male politicians in NZ, and a few female ones as well, desperately want to tap into.

Well in Key’s case he has nailed it and this is reflected in loyalty to Brand Key, he is perceived as being an authentic kiwi male (likes rugby, drinks beer etc) which resonates with kiwi voters in that he is a male figure that they can identify with and which also appeals to female voters in the same mold as the fresh faced, suit wearing, middle aged white men first made popular by Tony “poodle” Blair but later co-opted by conservatives everywhere has appeal.

Brand Key as an image is incredibly strong and resonates in much the same way any popular brand does and through a variety of media formats (image, sound, word etc) which makes the strategy of billing him as an apolitical middle man perfect for appealing to middle ground voters unhappy with the perceived failures of partisan politics and wishing only for a simple message and action orientated leader (if only in image rather than actual action) an easy task.

The fact that Key has kept hidden his deep ideological background to the vampire squid and all that it entails from Godzone voters is proof that this strategy has worked wonders and remains viable today.

Following on is brand equity (or capital) which is the measure of how much good will a brand has banked away for a rainy day. Again in this area Brand Key has been very successful and while things have had a bit of a downturn of late (as with the rape joke not going quite as well as planned) it remains in credit with the mainstream voting public.

Brand equity is built primarily through a successful brand strategy and as we have seen the strategy has been so successful that it has led to a windfall of equity to which Brand key has used to offset moments like a backfiring rape skit on a brain dead radio show.

Then there is brand definition (the positive, open articulation of the brand though positioning it within a particular idea or framework) which is the opposite of brand strategy (which is primarily subliminal in its articulation to people). Brand Key has been defined by words like “pragmatic” or “human” or photos of him doing human things (like having a pizza delivered to his house) which all lead to John Key often being set apart from other politicians.

Brand Key is defined as a kiwi guy, popular and the kind of person you could run up and take a selfie with, the kind you would want to take a selfie with and to which we would like to know more of his life, just like we do when we hanker for more info about our favorite celebrity, a Kardashian like politician if you will (the spawn family from Hollywood not the aggressive alien spawn from Star Trek) for the political public to consume through vicarious means.

If Brand Key could be defined in the language of soft drinks then John Key is the politician that refreshes, with no added political baggage (like ideology and such) that Labour and the Greens have (well maybe the Greens) and focused on the things that matter, like having an economic surplus and lower taxes (i.e. getting wealthy). He is the politician you vote for when you want the classic taste of economic conservatism but none of the ideological aftertaste you get with ACT.

After brand definition is synergy, a king among buzzwords, even in marketing and now in government. Synergy in this sense means the magic of bringing it all together with that extra something special that gives things mojo where they themselves had none. Its the X Factor for politicians and Key is racking up the votes while the accordion player and albino dancers languish off stage. There is no denying Key has the X factor when it comes to politics.

And finally there is brand momentum, the movement or energy of a brand. The easiest way to picture brand momentum is to imagine a brand as a shark swimming, if its stops it sinks and it dies therefore it’s imperative for there to be continual movement and in marketing “movement” means exposure, new advertising campaigns (not necessarily any new products) to keep the brand in the mind of the public and keep it oxygenated and alive because there are always other predators/brands out there which will pounce on a weak brand and usurp its position as apex predator.

In the case of Brand Key there is no possible momentum outside politics. One could not imagine John Key helming the NZ version of Celebrity Political Apprentice (although I do like the idea of such a show) uttering some immortal line (“you’re a tree hugging liberal!” for example) at the end of each episode as another unfortunate contestant is hauled off to some distressing little room in the Beehive basement for another session on the rack before being returned to the backbenches to mutter “I love John Key” slowly and repeatedly during sitting days in parliament.

No, with no politics there is no Brand Key, it is only within those waters does such a creature swim and out of all the principles discussed this is the one area where Brand Key has a real problem because it is here that the limitations of Brand Key become evidently clear and where the veil on Brand Key is pulled away to reveal another layer; a dirty grimy layer, coating the surface like some sticky, amorphous and unidentifiable substance stuck to one’s finger that is difficult to remove and smells funny as it comes off.

And it is not the fault of any of the principles of advertising which fail when applied to Brand Key but the concept itself of applying marketing techniques and ideologies to something such as politics. Sure it shows the pervasiveness of late stage capitalism in penetrating all aspects of society but that does not mean that they will work as intended to even work well. The commonality of the public and community that politics is supposed to represent does not fit well with the highly individualized act of consumerism in the 21st century.

Branding in politics, as in any form of branding, is style over substance, it is artificially building up something which does not exists or has not yet had the time to reach such a state naturally before delivering it to an eager consumer to be consumed and in the case of John Key few if any would consider him a genuine statesman when compared to his ongoing image as Prime Minister. Key at best is a manager, a middle manager, following the orders from higher up and implementing their agenda rather than formulating any real policy or ideas of his own.

In his past career as a market speculator he may have shown some brilliance in manipulating the small variances of the market to make his vampire squid bosses rich but that was the extent of it (although there is no doubting that Key, unlike many in Nationals cabinet, is a genuinely intelligent person). His miracle advance through the ranks of National in the early 2000s has all the hallmarks of a heavily stage managed career path, not one of his own making or design (he had the talent but a bit of promotion never hurt). John Key is a cypher, of no importance himself but useful in the grand scheme which is why he is so apolitical because making money needs no real political allegiance and as PM he himself is just an actor playing a role.

Therefore the building and maintaining of Brand Key has been essential to hide this simple fact. Brands tap into the subconscious, bypass the rational and distract the mind (like a meme or a virus) with easily repeatable images and words’ all of which are to hide from view the true fact that product A is exactly the same as product B.

The shaping and molding of John Key into Brand Key has been an unqualified success in the last decade but this has not been at the behest of John Key. He may have allowed himself to go under the spin doctor’s knife in order to enhance his image (much like Helen Clark did with her makeover while PM, to appear more human and less like a Quentin Blake drawing) but this was in the service of his “role” as PM and not a conscious or natural evolution.

And its those spin doctors sitting in such close proximity to the PMs office that are likely the same individuals who brought about the Dirty Politics scandal which exposed the National party agenda for winning the 2014 election as one less focused on winning the vote or enacting any actual policy changes and more about smearing the opposition; using attack blogs, rumors and manipulation of the political discourse to such an extent that all other voices are drowned out and the only thing one can hear is the mind numbing buzz of the Brand Key jingle burrowing its way into your head like some brain controlling worm.

So what happens to Brand Key when John Key loses an election or decides to retire from politics, what happens to old brands when they go off to die?

Most brands don’t age well, think of all those pro-smoking adds from the 1940’s or other lame and nauseous adverts from the 1950’s onward (like coke or Macdonald’s) with their artificial realities, happy families and smiling faces hiding the grim realities (such as lung cancer or type two diabetes) which come after the product has been bought and consumed.

The chances of John Key turning out to be a classic or iconic brand are low. Brand Key has been more a series of flash in the pan media moments with its strobe light effect smashing again and again in the victims eyes, blinding them to the generic product wrapped up in marketing hype; rather than a NZ trusted brand which radiates appeal to kiwis.

The likely legacy that Brand Key will leave behind is as the Fred Dagg of his generation, a caricature of a politician with his endless media moments rather than genuine Kiwi political figures who left behind real legacies (such as Norm Kirk, Keith Holyoake, Robert Muldoon or David Lange); a smooth talking city boy with a bland soul rather than an authentic political individual that enacted real positive political change**.

I end here with a quote from a hero of mine which fits this post rather well; it came to me by chance as so many things in my life do. Take it away Bruce!

“Those who distrust the life-giving force within them, or who have none, are driven to compensate through such substitutes as money. When a man has confidence in himself, when all he wants in the world is to live out his destiny in freedom and purity, he comes to regard all those vastly overestimated and far too costly possessions as mere accessories, pleasant perhaps to have and make use of, but never essential.” Bruce Lee.

*-because when you are a short, skinny dark hair guy in Asia you can work as a photo model. And yes I have a schizophrenic CV, that’s my life.

**-That does not mean the john Key as the actual human being may not turn out to be a genuinely interesting person but this post is looking at the political context only.

19 thoughts on “Bland Eyed Soul: Analysing Brand Key

  1. Key is a puppet of the spin doctors.
    Key is a puppet of his manipulators.

    Key is the relaxed friendly face of the National party.
    Key is the brand of National, actively promoted by a venal cowardly media.

    Key comes across as so insincere that maybe the brand is wearing thin.

  2. Great post! In my family there are strands of creative types, academics and ultra jocks,( a Commonwealth Games Track & Field Medallist, a Maori All Black). None of these groups who I obviously know well relate to Key. What I can never get my head around is the ‘everyman, good kiwi bloke, sporty, have a beer with’ cypher. None of my relatives see Key in these carefully crafted images. I doubt if he ever played sport, likes to hang around sports people – is that a sport? Guy to have a beer with? He seems far more a wine drinker nothing like a kiwi beer drinker. He seems rather effete, has not the masculinity of the ‘kiwi bloke.’ Not that that is always incredibly laudable. Back to your main thesis, he is a Crosby Textor creation and horribly successful.

  3. That’s a very good analysis. Definitely 8/10, maybe 9. I found the conceptual frame you borrowed from the ad industry quite interesting. Almost as if there was someone there sometime with an operating intellect, eh? But waste of time to say so because nobody would ever believe it.

    I started making television ads in colour the year before the public stopped seeing them in black & white (’75) and a decade of crafting such propaganda for the capitalists taught me how easily the masses are seduced by a concoction of imagery with scene changes at the right timing (pace & flow). However there’s more to the guy than the brand.

    In politics the crucial factor is authenticity. True that plenty of fakers get successful, but it’s the one that sorts out those from key players in the game.

    Now I’m still alone in seeing JK as authentic, a decade after he first showed up. I have intelligent friends who still have the same puerile antipathy they had back then, as if they can’t see past the money, people mid-’60s & older. But I suppose to read character you need insight & empathy and that’s a rare combination.

    Obviously he’s likely to have been recruited by the Bilderbergers – but they’ve been using the left/right glove puppet strategy half a century so why target him on that basis? People do so like to cling to their delusions, so I have to just roll my eyes at their naive expectation that a Labour leader will be any different. None of these apparently intelligent people even reads history, can’t learn from it, and no matter how many decades go by they keep failing to learn from experience either.

    Lucky people rise with natural timing, and the left keeps giving Key feeble opponents. However he has attributes you are not giving him credit for. He’s extremely intutive, reads nuance real fast, and is a natural team leader. I’ve known that he would win each of his elections several years in advance, and have been predicting his 4th term ever since last election night. Currently the Ak housing market has moved against him sufficiently that I’m no longer confident he will get that 4th term. If the Labour/Green MoU turns into a credible government in waiting, our centrist voters will go for it. He’ll be relying on traditional Labour idiocy…

  4. Barbra, Dennis and Peter:

    We may never get a real answer for why Key is so popular but his magic works and that is something we have to live and deal with.

    Barbara: I think JK is definately a personable guy, that come through when you watch him talk, I dont ever disciunt that, unlike Andrew Little who often looks uncomfortable to be outside but it is exactly that affable personality that we see which hides so much else. I could never figure him out either but cypher or not he made the top job and something had to be there more than naked ambition (otherwise Judith Collins would have been PM years ago).

    Dennis: Thanks for the high score. Your right about the Left being part of the reason why Key is so popular but when Labour tried to fight Key on his own ground by wheeling out Cunliffe, Shearer and Co in the struggle before Andrew Little they showed that its not enough to just shoot for the demographic with any old white male politician, again its that ol black magic which Key has and which parliamentary Spin has manipulated and increased.

    I am watching the Labour/Greens thing with great interest because I have my doubts but I also have my hopes.

  5. E.A. You paint the big picture in your analysis. I am looking at the ‘small picture.’ The ordinary person, the fabled person on the Clapham omnibus, or the use of the five year old child test. Would a five year old fall for his claptrap? His visit to McGehan Place showed where his false empathy lay. I’ve never met the guy and maybe he is charismatic but watch him in Parliament and he presents a very different, nasty face, though he’s softened that up a bit lately if he’s there and has to leave the nasty stuff to his patsy colleagues. I just don’t get the adulation of this empty man. The only thing I’d give grudging credit for is his overseas persona. i don’t think many knew how effective he could be internationally. He’s hardly put a foot wrong.

  6. I agree with you Barbra but I was trying to place him in the context of a successful media product rather than an actual politician, excluding his moments in the house, but then who is there.

    Believe me I don’t get the adulation of the empty man either but that’s part of the riddle we are trying to solve.

    If we could suspend Goodwins Law for a moment, I want to know who is Keys Gobbel’s to his Hitler.

  7. Yes I thought your analysis was amazing. Calling him a product was brilliant. What I resent is having this guy as our leader. I wouldn’t go as far as Hitler but we deserve better than Key! Are our glory days gone when our politicians had integrity and vision?

  8. Thanks Barbara, I’m not really comparing Key to Hitler, that’s why I said I was suspending Godwins Law but just as Hitler had a brilliant PR manipulator in Gobbels so to does Key have one somewhere as well, I think we know who they are but you never know for sure.

    I do agree with the wanting a better leader thing but looking around parliament I don’t see many candidates I like the look of.

  9. Well, in terms of brand analysis, you could provide a theoretical basis for the analogy: national socialism is a hybrid brand.

    Key copied Helen Clark’s formula in reverse: she did socialist nationalism, he does nationalist socialism. That’s why McCully & he formed their strategic partnership to defeat the ideological rightists within National. Hager, in his book The Hollow Men, reprints a key email leaked from Nat informers, in which McCully is referred to as “the dark side”.

    Depicting a pragmatic conservative as evil illuminates the paranoid polarising effect of the free-market ideology, and is an amusing indicator of the simple-mindedness that dualism induces in politicos. Whether they be left or right! Since worship of the deity Market Forces (only god with a surname) has been the problem left/right pathology in Aotearoa for 30 years I naturally took a sympathetic view of the victorious pragmatists.

    But no, I doubt Key either has or needs a Goebbels equivalent. He’ll survive or progress on his own natural merits. The Bildergergers will give him a global role now that he’s been a successful apprentice. Where the analogy ultimately fails is that Hitler’s legacy is as dictator rather than builder of a hybrid political brand (which he didn’t even originate – copied Mussolini) and Muldoon’s the model for that in the National Party. Key is not only too liberal to qualify by comparison, he’s also way more liberal than Bolger. I was impressed when he dislodged Bolger from the quango sinecure as soon as he became PM. It meant he was determined to reposition the Nats as centrist rather than rightist. Very clever. See how he’s using the lever of the Maori king to try to sideline Peters. May not work but sends a powerful signal. One too subtle for most political commentators to notice!!

  10. If you read that biography of JK by John Roughan it’ll give you more insight into the nature of the guy. People are a product of their evolutionary trajectory, as produced by a blend of genetics & culture – primarily social conditioning by family, education, career path. His authenticity derives from this. To learn someone’s nature requires an open mind into it. Leftists bail out, feeling they lack that essential pre-requisite. Empathy & intuition then facilitate comprehension.

  11. Dennis: I have read it, its really more of a hagiography than a biography. Its not bad but I came away with no real picture of Key as the PM and lots of factoids about his early and middle life. Not the best of its kind as it really is not that critical in its focus.

  12. It’s a hagiography for sure, trying to elevate JK to ‘sainthood.’ Probably written by Roughan to keep hold of his job at the Herald.

  13. EA gets to be pretty reading sometimes. Like the Otago academic zealot Bryce Edwards he has fallen into the trap of writing in praise of the great helmsman.
    John Key is one of the few politicians who can carry off jokes about race [ they might eat me] or sex [ she has a pretty mouth ]
    In this sense we are proud of him. True bloke, unhampered by the sickening disease of progressive liberal speech control freaks.
    This statement below within the article text by E.A. is so patently wrong, and this clearly evidenced by polling over the last generation or so .
    Brand Key @ “ Few if any would vote for National if it was not for Brand Key (something I noted in my previous post on the party).“
    Now to the reality.
    Socialist politics is making way for Nationalist politics. This by world wide evidence. State ownership, leads quickly to authoritarian state control, and its natural corollaries..

    Many are aware that this Nanny Government lacks a spiritual entity, and is somewhat flim flam. Like you collectives it is in denial, but some of us can hear the sharp screeching of brakes, and foresee changes in propaganda soon.
    The John Key legacy will include the memory of :

    Denial of the underlying anger at race based privilege and enrichment of tribal chiefs [ Ngai Tahu white ] without benefit to Maori at all.

    The housing and Immigration facts separated out and unleashed soon, which will propel NZ First to 14%.

    Then as you say there is corporate welfare, and a growing under class.
    Anyway thanks for the glowing report on the leader. Recognition that socialism and Labour are buried alive, and nobody can hear the wailing.

  14. I agree with Paul that the Key brand is merely the icing on the cake for the Nats. I’d give it 5-10% in the polls, no more. However, it makes a crucial difference.

    Re his prediction of NZ First reaching 14% again: I’ve also been expecting this. The left/right collusion in favour of flooding Aotearoa with immigrants is pushing centrists towards Winston. Conservatives aren’t all that keen on foreign tourists either: they like the money, but hate the crap & pollution.

    Re “the sickening disease of progressive liberal speech control freaks”: yeah, Paul, I’m with you but Auntie Helen is long gone to the UN & the tide has been going out on her acolytes ever since. There’s an old saying “this too shall pass” – and it is, don’t worry!

    Re the ebb of socialism globally, yeah but that trend’s been going nigh on 40 years, and the re-emergence of nationalism is more illusory than real. The real trend is decentralisation. The independence movement in Texas now has local politicians recruited.

  15. JK is popular because he isn’t that interested in politics. The people who vote for him specifically (instead of those that vote for National) do so because they also aren’t that interested in politics and see him as a safe pair of hands.

    The dirty politics is mainly to make the alternative-in-waiting look like a bad idea, rather than lionise Key.

    In reality of course politics is really fucking important.

  16. I’d say Silvio Berlusconi is far more comparable to John Key than anyone related to Godwin’s Law. Still, it’s easy to figure out who the Goebbels equivalent is, and it’s called Crosby/Textor.

    Paul Scott: out of curiosity, would Donald Trump be your preference for the White House? Or maybe Ted Cruz if he’d gotten in?

  17. Kumara: Shhhhhhhh, you will give the surprise away.

    But yes you are correct. I think they might make a good topic of a future post.

  18. Question from Kumara above here
    Paul Scott: out of curiosity, would Donald Trump be your preference for the White House? Or maybe Ted Cruz if he’d gotten in?

    Yes Trump for President. The members of the NZ Fascist and Redneck society tend to think in straightforward ways.
    We discovered, [as the collective can if it looks] that the Clinton foundation takes massive fortunes on a direct, prearranged pay back basis.
    The foundation’s treasury is not directed toward democracy, poor communities, or children at all, and it is well outside their Law of Trusts.
    Everyone who can and does read, now knows that Clinton is despicable at every level of operation.
    But soon they will both die, and the Clinton name will be forever linked with corruption and evil.
    Before her death however she will likely engage in a new war, because unlike the radical right, and Trump, she appears as a puppet of the military system.
    Trump may be a dangerous bastard but he is our dangerous bastard, and we think he would take necessary steps to relieve the sickness of the USA, but which Clinton will further accentuate.

    John Key will be remembered in part for his lifeless support of race based preference and privilege.
    In New Zealand we don’t have an Upper house with a transferrable vote which would devastate the race based inequity as we have now.
    What we have is a Supreme Council of tribal leaders, who suck much of the guts out of New Zealand and give their people nothing.
    But inequitable democracy is a contradiction.
    It will end when middle New Zealand has had enough.

  19. Yes, Key does support ‘race based preference and privilege’ as long as it’s rich and white.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *