It took a hashtag to heat up election season in Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that if the public want him to step down all they had to do was say “tamam” (in this context meaning enough). Within hours there were over a million tweets with the hashtag #Tamam. The next day Erdogan’s supporters were tweeting “devam”, meaning “continue”.
This brings me to a related issue, one which I had already planned on addressing: branding and brand identity in the Turkish political context.
Perhaps more than anything in this world people are consumers. We make purchasing choices all the time - what food to eat, what clothes to buy, what car to drive. Successful businesses seek to steer our decisions towards their products or services.
The idea of a brand is more than just the name of a product like, say, “Coca-cola” or “Burger King”. The brand is the encapsulation of the attributes of a particular product or service that communicates a strong sense of association, perception, feeling or emotion. Not only does it do so in a way which is brief and concise, but it also has the potential to reach a broad audience.
Central to a successful brand strategy, at least in recent years, is the idea of a narrative or personal story. Often this is described as a “journey”. Go to the website of any new brand. Whether they sell bed linen or blouses, there will probably be a section that details the personal background of the owner and how he or she created the product. The idea is to create an illusion of intimacy between the brand and the consumer. By purchasing the product, you become part of the story.
Branding in politics is not so different. Just as we are consumers, we are also voters. Let me sketch out the brand identities of the leading presidential candidates and political parties in Turkey to illustrate my point. In doing so, I hope you will see who are the frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June as well as their chances for success.
The party which has the strongest brand identity is the ruling AKP. Just its name, the Justice and Development Party, hints its political agenda – the quest for justice for those, particularly the pious or traditional, who despite being the majority were marginalised by the secular elite. The Party stands for rectifying this injustice while developing the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy. The official name of the AKP is the AK Parti. AK, meaning clean or white, denotes purity. Not only does this speak to the religious or those concerned with family values, but it also implies that the party is transparent. Love or hate the AKP, this is a highly effective brand message. No wonder the AKP has won every election it has contested and remains the frontrunner ahead of next June.
President Erdogan’s personal brand is a rag to riches story, a man of the people who encapsulates the quest for the rectification of past injustices while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation. A religious man with a pious educational background, Erdogan is the man that “they” could not prevent from rising. A man of the people, Erdogan’s success is your success. A vote for Erdogan, the message goes, is a vote for yourself. What is more, his brand is that of being a doer whether that means putting foreign leaders in their place or managing the economy. Erdogan’s brand message continues to be highly effective. However, recently it’s been taking some knocks. Sometimes Erdogan comes across as beleaguered and his flashy expensive suits seem out of kilter. Also…well actually I’ll stop there. Don’t think I really want to give out advice.
Let’s turn to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP also has a clear and consistent brand which everyone knows. Come on, say it with me, “the CHP is the party of Ataturk”. This clearly implied in the party’s logo, the six arrows of kemalism on a red background mirroring the national flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand per se. Its failing is that it is old fashioned. It also lacks a narrative beyond that of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this day and age the story of Ataturk has been appropriated by many different sectors of society, leaving the CHP’s brand narrative rather dull. It doesn't speak to innovation, the future or the Turkey of the 21st century. As a result, the CHP consistently hovers around the 25 per cent range of the popular vote in recent elections. This is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the CHP this election was not putting forward its party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate. From a branding perspective, I think this decision will prove catastrophic. When Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader in 2010 he was quite cleverly marketed as Turkey’s Gandhi. But this brand weaned in subsequent years and Kilicdaroglu appeared more like a boring bureaucrat than a toga wearing non-violent revolutionary. However, this Turkish Gandhi image was revitalized after the 2016 attempted coup and the ongoing state of emergency. Justice marches, rallies and civil action campaigns, Kilicdaroglu’s brand was becoming effective. He wasn’t wearing a toga, but he was pictured in a string vest eating a modest meal while breaking bread with ordinary citizens while on his Ankara to Istanbul march. Not bad. Yet, after all this the CHP chose Muharrem Ince as its candidate. Ince, who certainly has some fire in his belly and cross-party respect, might be an ok candidate, but time is not on his side to develop a publically recognizable brand. I think he stands no real chance.
This is in contrast to IYI Party founder and leader Meral Aksener who led a break-away faction from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In reality, this split should not have been a big deal – the activities of a renegade faction from a country’s 3rd or 4th largest party normally fades from the news cycle quite quickly. But Aksener was somehow able to brand herself as a political warrior leading a fight against those in the MHP who were succumbed by the allure of power. I guess you could say they were seduced by the dark side of the force. Noble and defiant, Aksener’s stands for the honor of fighting for your principles. The problem with Aksener’s brand is that it completely overshadows her party. I suspect the election results will show poor votes for IYI Party (although part of the opposition coalition), but significant votes for Aksener in the Presidential run-off.
Finally, let us turn to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its Presidential candidate, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas. Both have an effective brand image as the country’s liberal and democratic pro-Kurdish Party. This image does not speak to the entire Turkish population, but doesn’t attempt to; the HDP is not trying to turn atheists into believers, or, in this case, ardent nationalists into progressives. The unfair incarceration of Demirtas who is running for President while in prison only adds to the HDP’s effective brand. It also plays into the image of Demirtas as a man who stands for hope, reason and change (remind you of anyone?). The brother of a PKK fighter but who chose the path of peace with an outstretched arm to his Turkish brothers and sisters of all faiths and backgrounds, Demirtas and the HDP have no problem with their brand, but rather a huge problem with their inability to effectively campaign. Restrictions, incarcerations and physical attacks, it’s an insurmountable obstacle.
So, there it is, an overview of branding in the Turkish political context. I hope this helps explain some of the dynamics of the forthcoming elections. More to come soon.
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