The Resurgence of Brown: A Lesson in Rebranding
As the dust settles following the Scottish referendum on independence, analysis will surely follow about how the campaign ran, the tactics used by both sides and how effective these were.
However, one of the more unlikely stories that has emerged from the campaign trail may find itself overlooked in the annals of history. Yet, that story, which could come from some sort of political soap opera, holds a number of valuable lessons about turning defeat on its head and reinventing oneself. That story is the rebrand of Gordon Brown.
When Brown left Downing Street following a defeat in the 2010 General Election, his popularity was at an all time low. After spending 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and three as Prime Minister, Brown was taken to task for everything from his leadership skills to the global recession. After leaving office, he regularly featured highly in polls of Britain's worst Prime Ministers.
However, fast forward four years, and Gordon Brown has experienced a political resurgence at the helm of the "No" (to Independence) campaign. No longer seen as an incompetent statesman lacking charisma, Brown has successfully reinvented himself as a leader and a man of conviction; passionate about Scotland, positive about the Union and, quite remarkably, the man that saved the "No" campaign from the brink of defeat. So what changed and what lessons can we learn from Brown's inconceivable turnaround?
There were four stages to Brown's process, each providing a useful lesson for organisations seeking to overcome negative publicity and rebuild their public image:
- Lay low: When Brown left office in 2010, he was swimming against a tide of almost universal negative opinion, even his own party didn't want much to do with him. Faced with this challenge, Brown did the only thing he could - he disappeared from the public eye and waited for the dust to settle. Time is the best (and sometimes only) healer.
- Fix what was broken: Brown was often criticised for his lack of charisma and, in a government led by the ever-effusive Tony Blair, more than fulfilled the role of the dour Scot. Yet, a day before the referendum, Brown gave a rousing speech to an audience of No voters that has been described as the speech of his life. Passionate, patriotic and steeped in conviction, the speech bore none of the hallmarks that Brown was so often criticised for whilst in government.
- Choose your timing: The first two steps might be prerequisites to rebuilding a public profile, but this can't actually be done before re-entering the public arena. With this, timing is everything. Emerge too early, you'll be tarnished with criticisms of old. Appear too late and you may have missed your opportunity. Brown chose his time perfectly, coming to the rescue of the beleaguered "No" campaign weeks before the crucial vote as the knight in shining armour.
- Stand for something: When Brown left office, it was unclear exactly what he or the Labour Party he had led for the past three years stood for. The party, which was often criticised for being influenced by poll results, had lost the clear direction that it had under Blair, and Brown was seen as the man to blame. However, at the helm of the "No" campaign, Brown was reinvigorated. No longer the heir to Blair, he was the picture of courage and sincerity, driven by his belief in Scotland, the Union and that the UK would be better off together. Proof positive that nothing is more powerful than a story.
The resurgence of Brown was unexpected and how much of this was intentional, we'll never know. However, moving away from the label of Britain's worst Prime Minister to the man that saved the Union is a PR coup on a massive scale, and something we can all learn from.