How to market liberalism to improve its brand reputation

Brexit and Trump are two big victories for the alt-right propaganda machine, which has somehow managed to shift the Overton Window further and further right in the UK, US, France and elsewhere over the last few years. As a result, today we have ideas that are borderline (if not actually) fascist openly discussed and promoted by the president-elect, and the UK Prime Minister and others have genuinely discussed using foreign-born EU citizens as “bargaining chips” in Brexit negotiations. Despite this, their popularity remains high — the people are behind it, even after Brexit has caused the pound to tank (and even if Hillary won the popular vote, tens of millons still voted Trump).

So how did the alt-right do it, and how can liberals / progressives / centrists / whatever we want to call ourselves (a problem I’ll return to) fight back?

This got long, so a quick overview of the structure. Lesson 5 is the most important, so if you want to cut to the chase, that’s the key bit:

Background: How modern marketing works

Lessons from marketing, Brexit and Trump to help revive liberalism’s popularity:

  • Lesson 1: Persuade, don’t lecture
  • Lesson 2: Target your audience(s) appropriately
  • Lesson 3: Have a clear message
  • Lesson 4: You need Reach — and your own echo-chamber
  • Lesson 5: It’s about the overall brand, not just the product

Conclusion / a solution: We need an alt-centre

Background: How modern marketing works

The decline of print, the proliferation of TV channels, the rise of adblockers on the web — all this means that traditional advertising no longer works as well as it once (possibly) did. Traditional PR no longer works either — from my journalism days, I still receive hundreds of press releases a day from PRs, all of which go straight into the trash folder thanks to a handy Gmail script.

Over the last decade, marketing types have realised they need to get more creative. One single channel or approach is no longer sufficient to get the message across to the audiences you want to reach. Today, the most successful brand marketing is multi-platform, multi-format, imaginative, makes the most of the technology that’s available, and uses deep analysis of data to draw insights into audiences’ likely interests and habits to develop messaging, visual iconography, and taxonomies of terms to target for SEO that will resonate, be memorable, work neatly on social — and gives its target audience(s) enough of what they wants that they will become more open to the underlying marketing message.

This is my current day job — identifying, developing, and delivering multi-platform, multi-market, multi-format marketing strategies that target specific audiences with specific messaging, in the right place, the right format, and the right time to have maximum impact — with clear plans for testing, learning, adapting, evolving, and shifting over time. Few strategies I develop have less than a 2–5 year timeframe in mind, because brand perception can take that long to shift, depending on how big the shift needs to be.

Frequently it involves not just a change of marketing approach, but a complete overhaul of how organizations operate — which is why for some of our bigger clients I’ve also been working on internal communications structures, strategies, and messaging, and helping them shift their firm-wide organizational structures and processes to better align staff at all levels behind the messaging to ensure consistency, as well as to utilize those staff’s own personal social media networks and day-to-day email comms to maximise the messaging’s reach for minimal cost. (This an offshoot from my days running the central editorial team for Microsoft’s MSN — five years of gradually shifting working habits until I’d set up central coordination for all 55 markets, 350 editors, and built a globally-distributed team of direct report writers, editors and translators who were driving over 1 billion pageviews a month from centrally-produced content. When I started there, all markets operated independently, and there was no central editorial team.)

In short, the best modern marketing doesn’t just shape messaging, it changes ways of thinking about a company / brand both internally and externally, acting as a catalyst for changes in mindset and ways of working that can have a lasting impact.

(There should be less corporate bullshit speak from here on out, honest…)

Lessons from marketing, Brexit and Trump to help revive liberalism’s popularity

Lesson 1: Persuade, don’t lecture

The classic client position when approaching a marketing agency like mine is: “We know we’re great, but no one else does — how do we tell them we’re great?”

To which the simple answer is: “You don’t.”

No one wants to be told anything. They want to be shown. They want to decide for themselves.

“Hey guys, isn’t this cool?” is just about the least cool phrase it’s possible to say — yet most brands go into marketing with exactly that attitude. If people are allowed to decide for themselves, however, their commitment to that decision will be stronger, more lasting.

The trick is persuading them to decide what you want them to decide. And luckily for marketing types (as well as populist politicians), human beings are very easy to manipulate — as long as you keep it subtle. Because if you get found out for manipulating them (or even if they just *think* you’re manipulating them), you will usually provoke not just a hostile response, but an actively angry hostile response.

(Long aside: This is a tactic the alt-right has used brilliantly. Because it’s not just about convincing people that *your* product is better, sometimes it’s also about convincing them that your competition’s product is worse. The alt-right did this by creating an impression that their opponents are trying to manipulate the public, that there’s something suspect, not right, untrustworthy, be it about Clinton’s emails or politicians meeting with financial organisations (with the handy dogwhistle that still, sadly, links finance to Jewishness, raising spectres of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — one of the most effective right-wing marketing tools ever devised). This in turn has led to some voters in the US being more angry about Hillary having kept unspecified emails on a private server than they were at Donald’s open misogyny and racism — in part, because there’s still something unknown about Clinton’s emails, where Trump’s bizarre rants make him seem open, transparent and honest in comparison. His sexism and racism has been turned into a virtue.)

Lesson 2: Target your audience(s) appropriately

Closely related is the need to take appropriate messaging to appropriate audiences, in appropriate places, at appropriate times, using appropriate language, and in the appropriate format— as any of wrong place, wrong time, wrong language, or wrong format can be equally alienating. What may be appropriate messaging for one audience may not be for others, while what may be appropriate messaging coming from one source may be entirely counter-productive coming from another. I may be interested in details, so find fact-checking sites that go in-depth into the methodology in long posts useful—many others do not care, and so will be better reached with simple, preferably amusing infographics designed to be distributed on social.

This article is a good example — it’s far too long (already — and there’s plenty more to come) for most audiences.

If I were pitching to liberalism as a potential client using this approach, the Chief Marketing Officer of liberalism would have taken one look at all the text and thrown this in the bin. Instead I’d have gone for the classic, more visual presentation format (and, indeed, I may do a SlideShare version of this post at some point, if I have time — it’s always easier to write long than short).

(Aside: One big financial services client is keen to use Snapchat as a recruitment tool. This isn’t as silly as it may seem — as long as the approach is developed specifically for Snapchat, with research into Snapchat audiences and how they use the platform at the heart of it. And it would likely need to come via a partnership with an organisation or influencer that already has a solid Snapchat following, otherwise it would come across little better than someone’s dad turning up at the school disco, shutting off the sound system, grabbing the microphone, singing Frank Sinatra out of tune, and then expecting to pull the Prom Queen.)

Just as important is to remember that there’s never just one target audience (no matter how many clients tell me “we know exactly who our target audience is”, they never have yet — mostly because they always use audience in the singular).

Liberals should know better than anyone how diverse populations can be. Age, gender identity, ethnicity, sexuality, income, level of education, job, geographic location, experience of travel — any number of factors can affect people’s attitudes and approaches. And all those in turn can be shifted depending on time of day / year / month (I’m more likely to be up for going to the pub on a Thursday or Friday after payday than a Monday or Tuesday towards the end of the month, after all).

All of these different audiences (may) need to be targeted differently. The alt-right has everything from Bruges Group and Heritage Foundation style think tanks, Dan Hannan erudition and reasonable-sounding books, through talk radio ranters and Fox News features, all the way to stupid cartoon frogs and Ku Klux Klan marches and banner-waving / molotov cocktail-throwing protesters. Each of these approaches serves a different purpose, and targets a different audience, with slight variations on a core message.

Lesson 3: Have a clear message

How do you persuade someone to think your way if you can’t clearly define your thinking?

The Leave campaign in the UK had a number of very clear, concise, memorable slogans, but three really stood out:

  • £350 million a week
  • Take back control
  • Project Fear

The first of these may have been a lie, but it was a plausible lie that shifted the debate onto budget contributions, not economic value. Remain failed to see the sleight of hand, and we all started fighting the lie, rather than the underlying message (which was not about a specific amount, but the very concept of paying money to an overseas institution).

The second was a clear, easy to understand message of what would be achieved if the vote was to Leave (and to explain why it was a vast oversimplification is literally impossible without an essay — which is why simple messages are so vital in marketing). It appealed to deep-rooted patrotism, stirred feelings of pride, and made Leave voters feel they were part of a long, proud tradition stretching back through the Battle of Britain, the Civil War, all the way to Magna Carta — defending the rights of the people from power-grabs by unaccountable elites.

The third worked the same way as the Clinton email scandal — implied conspiracy, implied deception on the part of the Remain campaign, suggested that Remain thought the electorate was stupid, and undermined all attempts from the remain camp at building trust (not helped by Remain being led by a Prime Minister who’d been in office for six years as the leader of a party that was/is actively disliked by a decent chunk of the electorate in the first place).

What did the Remain campaign have to counter these three messages? I genuinely couldn’t remember (the first big problem), and then when I looked it up, it was the weird nonsense pictured: “Britain stronger in Europe”, a phrase that is not only easy to attack with a simple “So how come we’re being dictated to by unelected Brussels bureaucrats?”, but that also misjudges the core audience.

Liberals aren’t interested in strength — they’re interested in fairness, being pleasant to each other, co-operation, multiculturalism, diversity, and being citizens of the world. “Strength” was language designed to appeal to Leave voters, for whom the idea of “control” is appealing (where the concept is faintly terrifying for liberals) — the Remain camp should instead have concentrated on getting out the base, by making more people realise that the status quo was not only much better than the Leave camp were pretending, but was much, much safer than the unknown alternative.

How did Remain fail? More anti-EU people were energised to take an action, because the Leave camp’s messages were easier to understand, and better suited to both persuade and to stir emotion.

And this continues even now, with new memes and hashtags developed by the alt-right and their allies that those of us on the other side are singularly failing to counter with our own.

What was the Clinton equivalent of #MAGA (“Make America Great Again”)?

What’s the Remain camp’s equivalent of #Bremoaner?

The right is brilliant at coming up with catchy slogans and iconography. It’s why propaganda and aesthetics were such a core part of 20th century fascism. It’s why Goebbels was such a vital part of the Nazi regime. It’s all about manipulation, it’s all about marketing. The truth doesn’t matter — the message does.

On the alt-right / far right, the ultimate message is clear: “People who are different to you are making your life worse, and we will stop them.”

On the left / far left, the ultimate message is clear: “Big business is making your life worse, and we will stop it.”

What is the clear message for liberalism / moderates / the centre? “It’s a bit more complicated than that — now let me explain at length why the world isn’t black and white, but shades of grey.”


Liberalism needs a better core message. Only once we’ve got that can we develop slogans, memes, and effective hashtags to support it.

And what’s worse, “liberal” itself is a loaded word, used as an insult in the US, and potentially connected to specific political parties in other parts of the world. “Progressive” is just as bad, if not worse (because many progressives themselves hate the term as smug and elitist).

Head further towards the liberal left, or into the realm of minority identity politics, and there’s a further minefield of loaded terminology, much of which is totally opaque to anyone who’s not lived in that environment for years, and where it’s perfectly possible to accidentally offend someone who should be an ally by using language (in all innocence) that has specific meanings for them, or by using language that they don’t consider appropriate. (When talking race with non-white friends, for instance, they may refer to themselves as “brown people” or “people of colour” — if I, as a classically privileged white middle-class male, were to use similar language to other non-white people who I don’t know, some may (justifiably) find *my* use of such terms offensive, in much the same way the n-word can be acceptable if used in certain contexts by an African-American reclaiming it, but would (hopefully) still lead to outrage if casually used by a white person.)

Liberalism needs a new brand identity. It’s not yet a completely toxic brand identity (at least, not in all markets), so may not need to change its name (as UK bank RBS is apparently considering to do, following years of failures), but it does need to reconsider its leadership team, and is close enough to toxic brand status that it needs to at the very least come up with an entirely new marketing strategy.

Lesson 4: You need Reach — and your own echo-chamber

Reach is a marketing industry jargon term describing the number of people a campaign / message could conceivably get to — there are many ways of measuring this, and no industry standard. (Simple example: I have a little under 4,000 followers on Twitter. Some might consider my “Reach” on twitter to be 4,000, but it’s a big more complicated than that: not every follower will see every tweet, while some followers might retweet, expanding the reach to *their* followers, who in turn might retweet, and so on.)

To maximise your Reach today takes two things: an actively engaged social media following, and a large baseline audience. In marketing, the latter is usually manufactured via paid promotion, with the hope that the second emerges organically as a result.

The right — in the UK — has an in-built advantage in that a good number of the country’s most-read daily newspapers (Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph) are all right-wing. But this isn’t the case everywhere, which is why the alt-right looked to create their own baseline audience online — via blogs like the Drudge Report and its immitators (most of which tactically cross-link and cross-promote to boost their visibility to search engines), new ideological news sites like Breitbart, and even look to infiltrate, co-opt or subvert existing platforms like Reddit, 4chan, and most recently Gab to promote ideas and memes via a disorganised yet coherent echo-chamber effect.

The way Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot learned to become racist is exactly how human beings are radicalised by the alt-right — only it happened over a much shorter timeframe

The alt-right’s enthusiastic online organisation doesn’t seem to be centrally controlled, because it no longer needs to be. Individuals within the swarm know how the game is played, and they are enthusiastic participants. This is no longer classic astroturfing (though that still has its role, and many alt-right Twitter accounts are likely automated bots), but is more sophisticated than that. The success of “trolls” at teaching Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot to become a racist shows just how good they are at organising — and bringing in others to help amplify their message who may not share their ideas, but simply find the short-term goal amusing.

You don’t convert someone from being a simple, honest, vaguely patriotic person into a full-blown racist white supremacist overnight. It’s a slow drip-feed from multiple sources. And, most importantly, they will only come to fully adopt more extreme views if they think that there are plenty of others who share them.

This is where the alt-right’s broadly spread echo-chamber is so important — it’s multi-country, it uses multiple different platforms, and it has created a self-perpetuating cycle of right-wing angst and anger that is now turning into a perpetual motion machine of hatred. So successful has it become that it is now a viable business opportunity — many of the fake news sites now being so loudly protested about having been set up entirely independently of political activists, purely to make money from the machine of right-wing anger, keen for more material to fuel its ongoing cycle of anger.

Liberalism needs to create a similar organically self-perpetuating propaganda ecosystem, or it will fail.

Lesson 5 : It’s about the overall brand, not just the product

(This is by far the most important lesson.)

Samsung’s entire brand has been hit by the Galaxy Note 7 recall — not just the Galaxy Note brand, not just the Galaxy brand, and not just their smartphone business. They may still recover, but it was a big hit — and it was a global hit.

Brexit was liberalism’s Galaxy Note 7 recall. It has shown how weak liberalism is, and emboldened anti-liberals in multiple other countries.

As I noted in my last post (about how the alt-right’s global perspective has given it an advantage), those of us on the left / centre / progressive / liberal / whatever side tend not to seethe big picture. Our obsession with details and facts means we’re not seeing the wood for the trees. We’re focusing on individual battles, in isolation — not the war.

While its impact on the US presidential election is hard to judge, Brexit was a huge morale boost to the anti-liberal campaign out there, with Trump dubbing himself “Mr Brexit” quite deliberately. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen was one of the first to celebrate. The far right knew how big a win this was for them. It was a key battle in the global war. “This is no longer a protest vote,” came the message, “all those things you’ve been complaining about for years — all of them — we can now overcome; just look at Brexit.”

In marketing, the best campaigns look years ahead to how the current campaign can adapt, evolve, and help the brand years down the line. The best marketing types understand that, while they may well need to help sell the current product, next season’s model is already in development. They will try to understand the long-term, big picture company strategy, and develop campaigns that serve two purposes — selling the current model *and* setting up the next one.

The best marketers also know that campaigns aren’t just about selling, but about gathering intelligence to help improve both future campaigns, and to feed into future product development:

  • How do audiences respond?
  • What’s the feedback?
  • What do people like / dislike about the campaign and the product?
  • What’s worked?
  • What hasn’t?
  • Where did the campaign have most success?
  • Where did it work least well?
  • Which audiences responded best?
  • Where?
  • What did audiences want more of?
  • How did they respond to our competitors’ product / campaign?
  • What can we learn from that?

The alt-right has been *brilliant* at this — testing, learning, and sharing knowledge and experience with their counterparts in other countries.

Digital fascists in France collaborate with ones in Germany, the US, Russia, and further afield. All share successful memes and in-jokes, like Pepe the Frog, and adapt them for local audiences. They share learnings (to use awful corporate speak) from real-world and online campaigns and actions.

The alt-right has also been brilliant at crowd-sourcing ideas and approaches (something many marketing campaigns aspire to, but barely any achieve) — borrowing from the Islamic State group’s distributed model of action (and similar also to the Anonymous hacker network), assets and ideas are made available to any who want to adopt, adapt and play with them, rather than being coordinated centrally like a military campaign.

Why? Because the alt-right is clever enough to realise that this is a global battle, and one they had been losing. The post-war liberal consensus was driving racism, sexism and homophobia into retreat. The only way these reactionaries could win was to adopt guerilla tactics — the distributed, independently-operating tactics of a Resistance group, with no real chains of command (lest the entire organisation be brought down by one part being infiltrated or captured), just shared goals, shared tactics, and sharing of information on successes to help build on them.

It was the perfect strategy — and even builds plausible deniability into the system for the mainstream public faces of the movement, because there *is* no coherent system or chain of command. This means you can happily have actual neo-Nazis and white supremacists come out in support of Trump, and he can still plausibly (and probably truthfully) say that he’s got nothing to do with them, while still being part of the same movement.

Conclusion / a solution: We need an alt-centre

Fight fire with fire.

Use the enemy’s tactics against them.

Accept that it will take time.

Accept that this is a global battle — not just against Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen, but also Putin, Zuma, Duterte, Orban, and their successors and followers and supporters around the world today, and in the future.

Learn from mistakes.

Learn from tactics used by the enemy — and from others fighting them on other battlefronts.

Build a distributed, self-amplifying ecosystem to push out the core messages that will aim to win support for the goals of the movement over time.

Accept that not everyone will agree on messaging, on tactics, or even on end goals (just as the spectrum on the right goes from white supremacist segregationists through to people who simply resent not being able to get a job any more, so there’s a broad spectrum in the centre/liberal side), but that all those messages, tactics and approaches can speak to different audiences, at different times, in different places — and so help shift the Overton Window back towards somewhere slightly more sane.

We need to use all the weapons at our disposal in this war. Long blog posts like this serve their purpose, as do in-person meetings (like the one I co-organised the other day) — but so do funny hashtags, trolling people on social media, calling out racism in person, working to change your workplace’s compensation and recruitment policies to ensure equal pay for women and the continued hiring of minorities and immigrants, cartoon memes, and even — as distasteful as many fact-focus liberals will find this — liberal fake news sites.

The key lesson from all this is to give your audience what they want, not what you want to give them. Use the language they use, the terms they use. Take the conversation to them if you want them to come to you.

And accept that changing brand perception takes years. We have a job on our hands — but we *all* have a role to play if we’re going to succeed.

For that, we need to focus on the end goal, the big picture strategy. We can’t afford to get distracted by arguments over terminology, priorities, tactics, or individual battles — we just need to support those who have different priorities and approaches to us how we can: not just in our own countries, but around the world.

In short, we need an alt-centre. Join us.