25 May 2007

Why the "WorkChoices" brand is now unemployed

(As published in Crikey!)

In turning its back on the name “WorkChoices” for its industrial relations policy and legislation, as reported late last week , the Howard government is finally acknowledging what can only be regarded as a brand strategy disaster. The new wave of Commonwealth IR advertising does not use the WorkChoices name, and it has also reportedly been dropped from other communications vehicles, including call centre scripts.

Why has WorkChoices failed as a brand name, in spite of the millions spent devising it (it has a distinctly over-workshopped feel), protecting it (via three separate trade marks in nine classes, including this doozy ), and on the website, call centres, and mailouts, not to mention the $45 million spent in the first round of advertising?

Is it simply that the name WorkChoices is so uninspired and pedestrian, or to be even more blunt, “lame”? “Choices” is one of those words, along with “options” and “solutions”, that are appallingly overused in brand and product naming at the moment, especially at the lower end of the market – even the local taxi truck owner-driver now describes his business as “logistics solutions”. You can’t expect consumers to warm to a brand name they feel embarrassed to use. Even the PM himself seemed to be admitting as much last week , when he said: “I don’t always describe it as WorkChoices. I sometimes say industrial relations, I sometimes say workplace relations”. You can bet the marketers of Coke aren’t happy for people to “sometimes” ask for “a cola”.

Or is it because WorkChoices so clearly fails the “Newspeak” test for sincerity in political language? Any reader of Orwell’s 1984 can recognise the absurdity of the Ministry of Truth being responsible for propaganda. So when politicians (or marketers) use a word like “choices”, even the least cynical amongst us is immediately prompted to wonder what choices or rights have actually been taken away. Perhaps the word “choices” itself has become too closely associated with propaganda. Even McDonald’s has made extensive use of it recently: “Deli Choices” is really about the Golden Arches fighting back against competition from Subway, while “Lighter Choices” is about breaking the strong mental association between the McDonald’s brand and fatty, unhealthy food.

Was there ever any hope of success for “WorkChoices” in the first place? Remember “Incentivation”, “Fightback”, “The Things That Matter” and “Knowledge Nation”? You don’t? Well, that’s the point. With an increasingly brand- and advertising literate electorate, attempts to brand political policies seem doomed to fail ever more spectacularly.

It’s not just the millions in wasted taxpayer dollars that should have Howard, Joe Hockey and the architects of the WorkChoices name hanging their heads in shame – there’s a significant political defeat here, too. “WorkChoices” not only failed to fire consumers’ imaginations, but Labor and the unions wouldn’t buy into it, either, maintaining the focus of their own counter-campaigns on phrases like “Howard’s IR laws” and “Your Rights At Work”. Simply walking away from the WorkChoices name at this late stage isn’t likely to allow the Howard government to leave the negative brand associations behind. The new slogan – “Know Where You Stand” – is also ripe for counter-argument and parody, as some bloggers have been quick to point out.

In the right hands, a well-chosen and well-managed brand can be a powerful influencer of perceptions, attitudes and behaviour. But the whole sorry WorkChoices episode seems to confirm that when it comes to branding contentious policy initiatives, you can’t polish a turd.

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