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SHOULD THE PF REBRAND OR REBUILD ITSELF?

SHOULD THE PF REBRAND OR REBUILD ITSELF?

By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE 

THE former ruling party, PF admitted publicly during the aftermath of the August 12 polls what many of its own strategists had been whispering for days: that it will never win the popular youth vote whilst it continued to be seen as representing only “recycled” and “stuffy old men-and-women-in-politics.” In a scathing post-election analysis on its failings, the party called on its members to embrace the millennial-generation and young working class people – groups that voted overwhelmingly for the UPND in last month’s general elections.

The PF leaders, still reeling from their general election defeat, are reportedly considering whether a rebrand could help improve the party’s fortunes. But damaged political brands must tread carefully as they seek the path back to popularity, keen observers suggested. But others might argue that when the Zambian public had provided such a clear signal to a party that its brand is tarnished, it’s inevitable that it should choose to rebrand. 

There’s some validity in that – it’s likely a similar line of argument that was behind Nevers Mumba’s view when there was a case for rebranding his own party, the MMD which had struggled for some time and recently got rebranded as “New Hope MMD” but received an even worse drubbing at the hands of the UPND than anticipated.

However, the main problem with Nevers Mumba’s approach was that it ultimately resulted in the MMD, or New Hope MMD, getting an unprecedented electoral bashing. Replacing the party’s name(s) with another is not necessarily rebranding, especially with an electorate feeling let down, and political pundits could easily see the risk in the PF rebranding itself as the New Hope PF, just as many of the party’s insiders, are reportedly considering.

There are, however, crucial steps that need to be taken to ensure rebranding results in a salvaged reputation, rather than recriminations and electoral defeat. Crucially, it needs to be clear that the brand proposition has fundamentally changed, with the rebrand merely a reflection of – not a replacement for – this change in direction and newfound commitment to keeping promises.

Perhaps the main problem with rebranding, as the New Hope MMD the words mean different things to different people. For supporters of the New Hope MMD, it might mean graft-free and progressive. However, UPND zealots might take a different view. With this in mind, ‘New Hope’ is arguably appropriate branding for a party that, fairly or not, was once accused of possessing few graft-free principles. That’s not, however, the sort of messaging likely to prompt supporters to rally round a cause.

There’s something else that the PF bigwigs could learn from successful UPND campaign strategy – the need to communicate a key message quickly and clearly. This campaign strategy was a good example of branding that communicated the party’s central cause very quickly. So, should the PF rebrand? Possibly, but they need to understand what they stand for first, and find a way to convey this succinctly. As it stands, PF’s seemingly identity crisis is the enemy of succinct branding – few young people would be inspired to vote for the party that is not keen to bring in politically strong youths who have intellectual ability to articulate policy imperatives that appeal to the young population. Likewise, its track record means the former ruling party should rebrand itself by incorporating the young people in leadership positions or face extinction.

Possible alternatives could include an undertaking of intense intra-party debate over why it didn’t win and how the party needed to change to take back state power. Whatever they decide, branding should always be an inside-out job – a reflection of a detailed set of values and policies that could make a positive difference to the country. Otherwise, the party’s dwindling number of MPs in the National Assembly would be left looking forlorn and lost.

It is common knowledge that despite the PF losing the elections last month, and thus being totally swept out of power in Zambia, there’s been no official “autopsy” or widespread consideration of appointing new leaders or anything else, except for the newly-appointed party vice president Given Lubinda. It appears the party’s core activists don’t want to shift gears. This is the simplest and most obvious explanation: The PF isn’t changing directions because the people driving the party don’t want to. You could see the power and preferences of this group in their response or lack of it to Zambia’s new president, Hakainde Hichilema who reportedly told the BBC that he had inherited an “empty” treasury, while “horrifying” amounts of money had been stolen. 

Worth noting though, managing power is more difficult than capturing power. Most Zambian political leaders ride into office on a popular vote and depart on a stretcher of disappointment and condemnation. Opposition elements and those new to power in the country would do well to remember this. There is growing awareness that Zambian politicians seem not to have learnt from the American experience of why the Republican Party isn’t rebranding after 2020 election loss. Take America’s 2012 elections for example, after the elections, prominent Republicans sharply criticized Mitt Romney and his campaign. 

Democrats did the same to Hillary Clinton after 2016 – and sometimes included former President Barack Obama in their criticisms, too. For a political party to change direction, it nearly always has to distance itself from past leaders. Or put it another way: For there to be an autopsy, there has to be a dead body. But Donald Trump’s continued popularity among key GOP constituencies prevents Republican insiders from undertaking a formal, public discussion about his political shortcomings and how the party should move on from him. 

Everyone in the GOP knows that irritating Trump could result in the former president attacking them, which would make them vulnerable to a primary challenge, with conservative activists likely backing their opponent. So there will be no “autopsy” of the post-Trump Republican Party. PF insiders would do well to be mindful of this during their post-election autopsy.

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