John Key’s instinct to get out of politics six months ago is brought back into focus with last week’s massive change in the political landscape only six weeks out from the election. Two opposition leaders gone in a week, Labour’s new leader, Jacinda Adern, attracting half the Green’s supporters back to Labour’s brand. Did he sniff the air like the intuitive trader he is? Did John Key time his departure perfectly, instinctively knowing that all stocks, including his own, are subject to the cyclical whims of the universe? to chaos theory? Labour did not make a change of policy to attract the Greens supporters back to Red. They changed their brand image from Little to Adern. Just as National had previously achieved the same result by changing from their brand image from Brash to Key. The MP’s all trade off the corporate brand.
I do not believe it is a stretch to call our Prime Minister a corporate brand. After all how many of us really analyse our votes in terms of intellect and what provides the best nett benefit to the well being of our nation corporate? To be fair, if we did we would probably still have had Don Brash in as PM over the past three elections, not John Key. Protection of our economy is the fundamental role of the leader. From that flows the money to pay for our domestic law and order and international security, our educational aspirations for our young, our healthcare and all the rest. In the role of economic management, Don Brash as former Governor of the Reserve Bank, was the 4 star General in the strategy room; John Key was a currency trader; a frontline captain, standing side by side with the foot-soldiers in the trenches, having a beer with the boys afterwards.
Don Brash, the man Key replaced as National Party leader, unkindly said John Key did nothing more than Helen Clark would have done if she had still been Prime Minister. Or he could have said, more accurately, Key/English did nothing differently from what Clark/Cullen would have done. Harsh but probably fair. They were both very centrist politically; even though their branding colours were as distinct as Holden and Ford, in reality they could both have worn purple scarves/ ties.
And so once again it was more just the consumer deciding in 2008 on a brand switch even though there was no real change in the ingredients. Just a change of packaging. Change female for male, change red for blue. Change an arts/culture PM portfolio for a more hospitable Tourism PM portfolio. But in the fundamentals of dealing with the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake, probably pretty similar outcomes. The majority popular support for John Key over Don Brash as our leader was little different to the decision to go out to McDonalds rather than have a sensible beef casserole at home. At the end of the day, the majority of people rarely make an analytical decision whether choosing a food or beverage option or choosing a political leader; rather they will make a ‘lifestyle’ choice; a choice that suits their image of themselves. They choose by “Brand Image.’
So it is with popular voting of political leaders (aka democracy). And, being a man of commerce rather than a career politician, Key knew that all brands have a life cycle in any market segment, as predictable as the sun.
Those stunned by his decision to withdraw from politics given he still significantly out-polled all other leaders combined just were not looking at the trends and the players in the market that this street-savvy currency trader was looking at. Did he look across the floor and watch the young Jacinda working the room the way he did when he was waiting in the wings? Did he feel in his bones that it would only take one ‘political incident’ to change the whole landscape? He could never have predicted exactly what would happen, ie that during the launch of the election the Green co-leader would forget that that half the supporters of this supposedly eco-focused party were law-abiding, tax paying yuppies. So when Metiria Turei effectively gave a Green Party mandate to benefit fraud to the applause of all the Waitati hippies and Jacinda Adern presented a very sensible ‘save the rivers and lakes’ policy, the eco-yuppies abandoned the Greens and flocked under Jacinda’s banner. And that was the game changer. Or did he realise that, even without any game changer, the way the trends were looking, the most likely scenario for another term would be doing a deal with Winston Peters which would be one dead rat not even John Keys would swallow for the sake of another term.
The corporate brand only has value up until the time the marketplace decides it wants to change brand. Then the price goes through the floor. Key could see this was the trend and he had a gut feel. He had to decide how best to protect the value of Brand Key. I read investment advice that he once gave which was brutally pragmatic. If a price is trending down, cut your losses and get out, re-invest elsewhere. Brand Key in the political market was trending down; he got out while the price was still high. He will re-invest his brand in another market: commercial directorships, international public speaking and consultancies.
He said he made his decision after attending the United Nations Conference in New York in September last year. I suppose watching all the Helen Clarks wallowing in their Dantes inferno of politico-hell was enough for him to decide he had to err on the side of caution when it came to protecting the Brand Key in markets outside the political spectrum. Because what people were missing was that they saw Brand Key solely as a political brand, one owned by the National Party and marketed to NZ. But what John Key demonstrated was that it was he who actually owned Brand Key, not the National Party.
He decided the marketing strategy for the brand and he decided to change the target market from ‘NZ voters’ to something else, yet to be decided. I would suspect a more niche target market but with a much higher value. The hourly rate of a Prime Minister is not something to get excited about. The exposure achieved through the Prime Ministerial role has no doubt massively increased the value of the brand to other target markets. This is a man who has spent the weekend in a castle with the Queen of England; a man who has been on a family picnic in the Scottish Highlands with Prince Harry, Prince William and Kate; this is a man who has played golf with Barrack Obama. This is a man that people of influence will want to have in their homes and on their teams. Time to cash in. As in currency trading, timing is everything.