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Boris Johnson: the cult of the personal brand

2 September 2019 Alex Ballardie

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Image credit: “Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, speaking to FCO staff in London, 14 July 2016.)” by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC BY 4.0

So, as things stand, Parliament will be prorogued. Some have called it undemocratic. The word dictatorship has been thrown around in some quarters. The Commons Speaker has deemed it “unconstitutional”.

 Against this political backdrop, companies and businesses are looking to cut spending in a time of economic uncertainty – an effect that has been felt especially across the marketing and branding industry.

 This seems to be all doom and gloom from a branding perspective. And yet.

 Our current socio-political and economic climate indicates a deeper trend: how the rise of populism has coincided with the cult of the personal brand, summed up perfectly in the figure of our current Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP.

 Johnson’s move from affable player of “wiff waff” (look it up) to the Prime Minister who recently has threatened to bring us crashing out of the EU with no deal is as much an exercise in brand perception as it is politics.

 Indeed, should we have expected any less from a Prime Minister who, when foreign secretary, defended the power of jokes in democracy?

 In fact, Johnson’s political style is no different from any other number of campaign tactics over the last 50 years: draw them in with humour and charm, then ask them to pay. His recent pledge to spend £100 million on a no-deal campaign may well be the most significant brand campaign of the last 75 years of British history.

 But this is to be expected from a man who understands that the once clear distinction between news and entertainment has collapsed into the dreadfully postmodern portmanteau of ‘infotainment’.

Is it any surprise then that Johnson’s recent tactics have involved waving a kipper around to denigrate EU shipping laws, or how his first speech as PM was filled with affectations such as calling Brexit sceptics “the doomsters, the gloomsters”, or calling the United Kingdom an “awesome foursome”?

 Johnson is a man who has co-opted that last bastion of Britishness in the public psyche: the British eccentric. He has taken on the Bertie Wooster persona and brought it to the forefront of British politics, carefully cultivating a brand of very British populism that has disingenuously turned his education at Eton and Oxford into a paean for a Churchillian sensibility: a stiff upper lip, us-against-them sense of British pride. It is the 1% appealing to the 100%.

 But of course, Johnson has done this for his whole career. Hell, when Johnson became mayor of London, Ken Livingston’s original idea for publicly-available pay-as-you-go bikes was re-branded in Boris’s image – ‘Boris Bikes’ – and not one of us blinked an eye. Sorry Ken.

 Amongst all this socio-political intrigue, one thing is clear: as the line between consumer branding and politics collapses, so too does the marketer’s position in society shift. Gone are the days where an expert branding team are a bunch of glorified salesmen, boosting the bottom line of the Coca Colas of the world. Now we can be political campaign managers too.

 Don’t believe me? Just ask Boris.

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