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Johnny Hornby on the Strategy and Branding of Change UK

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The&Partnership’s chairman and CEO talks to Laura Swinton about the strategic challenges of rebranding the political centre ground

Johnny Hornby on the Strategy and Branding of Change UK
“If you know Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye, I think a very good way to get yourself there is to talk at length about a combination of colours and shapes…” Johnny Hornby’s team at The&Partnership might have just revealed their branding for the UK’s new centrist political party Change UK, but the CEO has no intention of getting expansively pretentious about the creative and design thinking that went into the logo. Rather than, as he puts it, 'talking a long way out of your arse', he’d rather get down to the nitty gritty of politics.

But first to the aforementioned logo. Last week the party, originally founded as The Independent Group, revealed a stark piece of monochrome branding of chunky stripes and serif-less text. While Johnny won’t be drawn on the semiotics, what he will say is that the design deliberately avoids the conventions of British party branding. 

“I think we wanted something that felt contemporary and didn’t have a flower or a tree or an animal or whatever. I think of the red rose of labour or the green tree of the conservatives and… these things are all starting to become imbued with layers of meaning that you don’t really want. We wanted a strong, solid backdrop,” he says. “I think the important thing about all logos, whether you’re a political party, a petrol station or a chocolate bar is that as you try to develop the brand they become the full stop at the end of the sentence rather than the sentence themselves.”

For readers outside of the UK, one might wonder what it is exactly that Change UK is punctuating. The party (full name, for now, Change UK – The Independent Group) was founded in February 2019 by eight centrist MPs from the country’s two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour. Amidst increasing polarisation and Brexit paralysis, not to mention bad behaviour on both sides, with anti-Semitism on the left and Islamophobia on the right, the eight founders sought to reclaim and repopulate the centre ground of politics. 

Johnny has been involved in political comms and advertising since the glory days of Tony Blair’s so-called New Labour movement that rose to power in 1997. Developments over the past decade have made him feel increasingly uncomfortable with his place on the left, seeing the Blairite pro-businesses social democracy replaced by a harder left wing philosophy under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum movement.

“Who could have predicted years ago that the Labour Party would lurch so far to the left and the Tory party, the party of business and law and order, would abandon business and watch knife crime go through the roof? The whole political climate is turned on its head,” says Johnny, who praises the politicians from both sides who left the relative security of the major parties to find some common ground. He calls them ‘incredibly brave’.  

The&Partnership will be helping to steer Change UK’s campaign strategy and communications. Now that the visual identity is out there, there are likely to be two initial phases. With European elections set to take place at the end of May, the first task is to tackle Brexit and galvanise support around the so-called People’s Vote or second Brexit referendum.

“The most important thing that you need to do as Change UK is make sure that people who believe that Brexit has been a shambles put their hands up and vote in the elections,” says Johnny.

“The important thing to communicate - and the feeling we’re certainly seeing in the polling and research groups we’ve been doing - is that the Brexit that we’ve been promised cannot be delivered and Parliament is unable to find a way through it,” he continues. “The reality is that the idea that you could have all the benefits of being in the European union whilst also being able to control your borders was never true, let alone all the other stuff about having £350 million a week for the NHS.”

After the upcoming elections, the next task will be to develop a cohesive voice and direction beyond Brexit. Change UK is not content to be a single-issue party and in order to reclaim and rebrand the centre ground, they will need to hammer out “what Change UK looks like across a wider spectrum of issues from education to health and business and commerce”. With Brexit monopolising the attention of the main parties and political journalists, Johnny reckons that the actual business of governance has been neglected. Rising knife crime, the strain of the NHS and the education system, along with the growing demand for food banks bears this out.

But what about media? With 70 candidates standing in the election, Change UK – The Independent Group qualifies for a party political broadcast on British TV. As for social channels, it certainly hasn’t escaped Johnny’s notice that the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data breaches and dodgy ‘grassroots’ groups’ misleading online ads have highlighted massive issues with (and caused a great deal of mistrusts in) political advertising on social channels. As a major advertising agency with international clients working with the ‘professionals’ of Change UK, Johnny says that their approach will be legal and ethical. Whilst other players in the British political landscape may be less concerned about regulations and ethics, rendering the playing field somewhat uneven, Johnny is confident in the team’s ability to have an impact while sticking to the rules.

There’s a big job and a long road ahead for the teams at Change UK and The&Partnership, but this is a cause that Johnny feels deeply about.

“Even if I wasn’t doing what we’re doing, helping them with communications and planning, I’d help them financially or otherwise because I think we have to rescue the middle ground of politics. Some Labour MPs and some Tory MPs at the centre of things have had the bravery to jump ship, and anyone who thinks that politics has gone mad should come with us,” says Johnny.
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The&Partnership, Thu, 02 May 2019 23:16:25 GMT