Rob Ford and the Hummer: Lessons in ruining your brand

Toronto's reviled mayor is the Hummer of politics: a social liability to his fans.

Memo to Rob Ford: successful brands never stop running for election. (Derek Shapton)

If someone had pitched you Rob Ford on Dragons’ Den, you probably would have written them a cheque. Admit it: no matter your politics, two years ago this product looked like a winner. At the nadir of a recession, here was a fiscal-conservative everyman on a crusade to eliminate waste and make government accountable. He had a knack for nailing Toronto’s problems so that enemies frothed and believers voted. Ford was crowned mayor of Canada’s largest, smuggest city. To a majority of the electorate, he seemed like a good idea at the time.

But a momentous beginning is no guarantee of success for any brand. Sometimes it’s a trap, especially if one is inclined to take that success for granted. And, from new subways to an austerity budget, it’s hard to recall a politician so unable to sell the very agenda that got him the job. That’s because he surrendered control of his image to critics, and supporting him became a public image liability for councillors.

For an object lesson, Mr. Ford’s brand managers might consider the story of Hummer. This defunct marque’s moment of glory was enabled by a crisis, too—a war many believed was about the same stuff the Hummer so prodigiously consumed.

Still, for a time it was a symbol of victory and potency in a morally simple world. It swaggered on the highways of the First World without apology, while environmentalists had kittens.

Then circumstances changed around it. The war didn’t seem morally simple anymore. Oil got expensive. Climate change ceased to concern only the radical fringe. Hummer, meanwhile, remained unapologetic—maybe “oblivious” is a better word. Rather than contend with its shifting context and evolve, the Hummer brand adopted the macho posture of its proto-buyer, and turned itself into a social liability.

As a brand, Ford’s mayoralty is not so different. Fiscal prudence was a timely premise, just as winning a war was for a new SUV. But winning is never the end, in politics or branding—it’s the beginning. It’s merely a chance to engage people in your narrative so you can actually get something done. And getting it done requires people to want you to succeed.

This is a process based on experience. Most of us interpret what someone says and does against norms that are cultural. Act like bully, and that’s what people will expect you to be. The theatre required to maintain a positive perception of your brand is perpetual work, and if you seem above doing it, people will turn-on you. Brands are always running for election. Always.

Just ask Apple. Last month, its CEO was in China, taking responsibility for the labour practices of Apple’s suppliers and using its marketing power to fix things. If Tim Cook isn’t above protecting his brand’s moral authority, nobody is.

Social liability dooms brands. Marketing history is filled with examples that started out popular and loved, then became embarrassments. The surest predictor of any enterprise’s future health is benefit of the doubt. It’s a non-renewable resource, and without it, you can’t sell—or govern—anything.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic