Understanding a vote-winning brand

by The Editor

FEATURE: In the article below the DA’s Gwen Ngwenya looks at the DA’s brand and its condition. She argues that, in order to understand it, one must do two things: first, look at the evidence (as opposed to mere opinion or speculation) and, second, how it is driven by strong leadership. On both these counts, she argues, the DA’s brand – a diverse party that delivers – is not just strong, but getting stronger.

Understanding a vote-winning brand

By Amanda Gwen Ngwenya

4 May 2012

Ahead of what is likely to be the Democratic Alliance’s most scrutinized Federal Congress there will be much postulating about the strategic direction of the party. Helen Zille’s twitter communication especially is an easy target for analysis. But evidence and not unquantified public outrage must inform how we evaluate events as formulators of narrative and drivers of voter behaviour.

There is no evidence that suggests that Zille has done damage to her brand or to that of the party. And it is the existing brand not the brand of conjecture that should inform discussions on the leadership of the party.

Managing a changing and complex organisation

The DA has undergone a massive rebranding project since 2007 that has involved significant organisational culture change. It is not an easy task. Companies with extensive resources and highly qualified staff make attempts at rebranding and changing organisational culture and fail. Some parts of the DA’s brand need more work to become believable to a larger number of South Africans, but there is no doubt that the DA has an increasingly credible brand as a diverse party that delivers on its campaign promises. The DA’s increasingly believable offer of a party that cares for all South Africans is in no small part due to Zille’s steadfast commitment to achieving diversity within the party.

One of the DA’s significant achievements is remaining intact as a party. It has not, in large, become marred by the same internal factionalism that has come to characterize the ANC and COPE. The DA’s success at holding the party together through organisational change and rapid expansion is not coincidental. It is the result of strong and consultative leadership.

Eusebius McKaiser’s article titled ‘More hugs, less Zille will help the DA to grow’ traverses the entirely incorrect and the painfully obvious. One of the incorrect statements is that Zille ‘forced the old white men of politics to take a back seat while she reached out to younger voters such as students.’ This is thumb-sucking conjecture masquerading as fact. The DA’s efforts at attracting young voters and ‘growing its own timber’ such as the Young Leaders programme and the relaunch of the DA Youth have as their biggest advocates white men within the party- some of them party stalwarts. The point is that Helen Zille is the leader of a party with a vision formulated and negotiated through the party’s decision-making structures and not one bulldozed through by individual feat.

As is natural in any organisation there will be differing ideas on how to take the party forward and ideas will be put forward from the young opinionated youth member or public representative to the long-serving party member. The maturity displayed in defeat by those who lose an argument or election campaign within the party is both a credit to the individual members of the party but is also, in part, symptomatic of the belief that the party ultimately is in good hands.

Social media upsets

For those of us without a public profile social media is a secure space that abides by our rules because for the most part our followers or friends are people who like us. Essayist, novelist and social media critic Jonathan Franzen articulates this point with charming brevity – ‘we like the mirror and the mirror likes us.’

For the public figure however, especially the politician, the social media platform is potentially a never-ending interview with thousands of would-be Deborah Patta’s – relentless and confrontational. And without a social media strategy it’s a public relations landmine. The DA is learning this the hard way. But it is irrational to lose confidence in a leader when future communication can be strategized and handled differently; it is also deeply illegitimate when the fear is unsupported by evidence of declining voter support.

On the contrary the DA’s offer to voters is as credible as ever with Helen Zille at the helm, as by-electoral victories in the aftermath of the refugee comment prove. The DA in ward 28 in Soweto grew its support from 8.23% in 2011 and now to 16.77% in this by-election. In ward 5, in Ndlambe, the DA’s support grew from 11.7% in 2011 to 17.5%.

The ANC in Grabouw alleges that after Zille made the refugee comment, more than 100 coloured members moved from the DA to sign up with the ANC and according to Catherine Neft ‘[Zille] really did damage to her own party.’ The electoral victory in Grabouw despite an intense counter-campaign by the ANC certainly discredits these claims. Further evidence of the negligible impact of ‘public’ outrage on voter behaviour is evidenced by the electoral triumph in ward 45, Manenberg-Gugulethu. Again the DA won the ward despite ANC stalwart Lindiwe Sisulu’s attempt to add fuel to the fire by denouncing the comment and telling residents that they should not have to be called refugees in their own country. The DA increased its majority from 47.7% in 2011 to 59.36% in this by-election.

There is a widespread and credible narrative of Helen Zille as an anti-apartheid activist and a promoter of diversity within the DA. Her effort to be conversational in isiXhosa and to dance and celebrate with her supporters convinces many that she takes genuine interest and is willing to be moved out of her comfort zones. To the average South African her brand is not that of a white madam. And while the DA and Helen Zille may be well advised to tweak their political communication it will take a lot more to refashion a brand for Helen Zille as ‘out of touch’ and racist.

The DA’s momentum

A party such as the DA which has enjoyed sustained and significant growth in four consecutive elections (2004, 2006, 2009 and 2011) can easily become addicted to the high. Everybody loves to win and a large part of the DA’s appeal, especially to the youth, has to do with the DA’s wins and momentum in comparison to the ANC’s endless internal battles and progress lethargy.

But the DA’s continued momentum is not inevitable. It can just as easily be slowed down by factors that have slowed other parties down including factionalism. Two years away from a national election is not the time to depart from experienced leadership and a vote-winning brand. Now more than ever the party needs to continue as a supportive and united front, and importantly it needs to keep its head. The DA is building a credible brand and making inroads into non-traditional voter bases, there is no need for frantic changes.

Amanda Gwen Ngwenya is a public policy and law student and writes occasionally for Thought Leader. She is also a member of the DA Youth.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian Newspaper.

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