We are living in interesting times. The tectonic plates beneath political parties are shifting violently, pointing to the need for a new orientation for Kenya’s political parties.
Political parties in Kenya have historically been under the tight control of a few powerful men, who bankroll them, choose the leaders they wish to have and basically run them like they would their personal property. With the dawning of the multiparty era, the same rich and powerful politicians got expanded space that allowed them to play musical chairs with political parties. The same men, joined by some women, now form new political parties, jump ship at will and even have the luxury of “belonging” to more than one party at the same time.
Come the new constitution, promulgated in 2010 and with it the Political Parties Act and the scenario has changed radically. The lay of the land now threatens to alter Kenya’s political party landscape completely. The most significant aspect here is that political parties will have to stop being the mobile malleable tribal bandwagons they were. Political parties will have to, by law, turn into national outfits with selling points other than tribal alliances, old boys clubs or disposable vehicles to the highest office in the land. Political parties will in short have to become institutions with long-term visions. Political parties will be unable to avoid becoming brands.
As we live in interesting times, Kenyan political parties find themselves living in strange times. How will political parties navigate the unfamiliar waters that brand building brings to their shores?
Stand For Something (For Everybody)
One of the unwritten widely accepted “rules” of strategic branding is that a brand should stand for something specific. The other “rule” is that brands must choose the market they wish to relate to. The rule about standing for something is probably not too alien to the Kenyan political class. It has however been badly applied in the past with political parties standing for a variety of wrong things such as certain powerful individuals, certain tribes or coalition of tribes, the war against certain politicians, the war against certain tribes, a certain part of Kenya, the quest to remove a certain politician or his tribe from power, and the retrogressive list can go on and on. With the stringent rules in the political parties act, calling for a national outlook for any valid political party, all the retrogressive badges mentioned above must go. It is time for political parties to actually develop real manifestos and real philosophies that can be differentiated. Many current parties have manifestos with different coloured covers. Sadly, that is where the difference ends. Brands must be different and our political parties will have to work very hard to differentiate themselves while avoiding past retrogressive tendencies.
The second “rule” of strategic branding mentioned here is about brands choosing a market or a section of the population, which it can appeal to. Now, this is a challenge. The challenge is that electoral politics is about numbers; the more the numbers on one’s side the more the likelihood of electoral victory. For this reason, political parties are tempted not to segment the population but to appeal to the entire population. I will not castigate political parties for this approach. I will even be so bold as to say, forget about the rule! I will however point the political parties back to the first rule, “stand for something”. I will also take them back to the point that standing for the narrow tribal or personality based brand positioning will not work in present day Kenya. The law forbids it.
To get the numbers, political parties will need to develop extremely clever brands that will rise above personality cults or tribal leanings. Kenya’s political party brands will need to stand for powerful positions that can appeal to most, if not all Kenyans. These interesting times will get even more interesting when such parties present themselves before the electorate come the high tide of election time.
Being different is arguably what branding is all about. This is because the age-old role of brands has been and continues to be differentiating one offering from others. This is done while of course ensuring that one’s particular offering is favoured. Brands are vehicles for achieving ones objectives, be it profit for a businesses, impact for a non-profits or power for political parties.
The human being, while largely a creature of habit, every so often yearns for something new and something different. This poses a challenge for brands in general and political parties in particular. To give an example, the United States of America’s Democratic Party with Barack Obama as its presidential candidate, rode the wave of change to the White House and the party now finds itself in a bit of a fix. It cannot possibly strike that same cord twice in the run up to a second term. Strangely enough, it is the rival Republican Party that is likely to preach change this time around. Even American political parties find themselves living in strange times! All this manoeuvring will be done in an effort appear different to the electorate. Being different, as illustrated using the United States situation is about reading the general mood and seeing what will strike a cord. It is also about seeing what the voters are yearning for and what you appear credibly capable of delivering.
Back to Kenya and we find tens of political parties that, sadly, can only be differentiated by the perceived flag bearer or likely presidential candidate. With a younger, better educated, more informed, empowered and more engaged population, would this kind of differentiation really work? We are in transition so, sadly, it will work to an extent. It will certainly not work for the long term. One could of course quickly retort that one needn’t think long term. Remember though that we are talking about building political parties, which are by definition formidable vehicles for not only the acquisition of power but also the retention of power. One of the reasons Kenya’s political climate has been permanently hot since the multiparty era began is that we have not had any real political party brands. We have had short-term vehicles for the acquisition of power, which get discarded faster than used diapers.
Plan Long Term
Kenya’s history of political parties is riddled with short-term thinking. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) “brought” Kenya’s independence and this heralded the first change for the newly born nation. KANU kept the key persons who “brought independence” and their associates in power and this appeared to be the party’s mission with its positioning being an anticolonial one. After about four decades of independence, it became irrelevant who “brought independence” as there was a sizeable population of voters belonging to a generation that did not experience the colonial era. These voters did not feel grateful to the old order for “bringing independence”. That is partly why the KANU brand failed to connect, waned and subsequently failed in its quest to retain power. KANU had failed to plan long term beyond being the “independence party”. Come the multiparty era and there was a real chance of dislodging KANU and its “real owners”. That is when a variety of vehicles such as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD – all the many FORDS!) and Democratic Party (DP) came to life, all positioning as THE political party that would deliver Kenya from the dragon called KANU. None of the parties really stood out and KANU triumphed in both the first and second multi party elections riding largely on the personal scramble for power among the various opposition heads. The opposition political party brands had failed to position themselves and differentiate themselves for the long-term based on a clear idea that every Kenyan could aspire to. Come 1997 and the clamour for change was at fever pitch. The vehicle that captured this feeling among most Kenyans and positioned itself thus was bound to succeed. The National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) did position itself thus and romped home almost effortlessly. Again, this is a party that did not plan long term beyond the ousting of KANU and it fell apart literally on the day it took power.
Let us fast forward to 2012. Today we find an attempt to fashion more vehicles for rich, powerful persons to ride to the white house on the hill. We find the usual short term planning. With the new constitution in place, we could say that the wind of change is already blowing and no political party brand can claim to be causing it to blow. With the era of the authoritarian imperial president gone, no political party can claim to emancipate us from such slavery. It is time to think beyond short-term opportunities presented by circumstances of the day as political parties have done in the past. It is time to create real political party brands.
Sadly, the truth of Kenya’s current political maturity is that the best political party brand is unlikely to win the next general election. We are not there yet but we need to start somewhere and take a long-term view if we are to have any true political party brands in our beloved country. It is by having real political party brands that we will make the kind of strides a country of Kenya’s stature should be making. We are indeed living in interesting times.
(The article was first Published in Management Magazine)