This column is an opinion by Éric Blais, president of Headspace Marketing in Toronto. He has helped build brands for more than 35 years and is a frequent commentator on political marketing for media such as CBC’s Power & Politics. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

There’s a truism in marketing: if you don’t define your brand, your competitor will do it for you. The Conservatives now have a very small window to rebrand the party.

When Andrew Scheer resigned last December, there was plenty of talk about the need for renewal. Many agreed the party had to reposition and rebrand itself to be competitive in the next election. However, this work was postponed until party members elected a new leader.

Meanwhile, the leadership campaign was a low-key affair due to the pandemic, which denied the party the increased public visibility that a race usually generates. And the embarrassing six-hour delay in announcing the new leader during the televised convention meant it lost its free prime-time programming.

Nine months later, the party now has a new leader — and its brand has a new spokesperson who is unknown to a large number of Canadians.

A web survey by Leger and the Canadian Press at the end of August said 21 per cent of respondents were favourable toward Erin O’Toole, 18 per cent were unfavourable, a whopping 52 per cent didn’t know enough to answer, and 9 per cent had never heard of him.

The results of an Angus Reid Institute poll conducted during the week following O’Toole’s election as leader showed a similar pattern. Thirty per cent said they were favourable and 31 per cent were unfavourable toward him, while 39 per cent responded that they don’t know the new leader well enough to say if they’re favourable or unfavourable.

In comparison, a similar survey by the Angus Reid Institute conducted during the week following Andrew Scheer’s election on May 27, 2017, showed that only 15 per cent of Canadians didn’t know Scheer well enough to say if they were favourable or unfavourable. At the time, more than half of Canadians (53 per cent) were favourable toward the new leader. Even with this early advantage, in the end Scheer failed to appeal strongly to enough Canadians to be elected prime minister.

The fact that more than a third of Canadians haven’t yet formed an opinion of O’Toole could perhaps be viewed as an advantage. One that his advisors could leverage by shaping the new leader’s image from scratch and, in the process, rebranding the party to his image. That may turn out to be the case, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Unless the Conservatives adopt a bold approach to branding and communications, history will likely repeat itself and O’Toole could suffer a similar fate to Scheer in the next federal election.

Official Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole holds his first caucus meeting in Ottawa after winning the Conservative leadership race Aug. 24. 1:20

The Conservatives are masters at casting their opponents in a negative light. They’ve used attack ads to successfully brand Stéphane Dion as “Not A Leader” and Michael Ignatieff as “Just Visiting.” They’ve also been relentless in attempting to portray Justin Trudeau as “Just Not Ready” and later as being “Not As Advertised.”

What they really need to do right now is ensure they cast their own leader in a positive light.

Justin Trudeau predicted that the last election would be the nastiest in Canadian history, while declaring that his party would not go negative. Once the campaign began, however, the Liberals went on the attack with contrast ads and social media publications of Andrew Scheer’s anti-gay declaration on video. And this was part of a campaign urging Canadians to stick with the Liberals to “Move Forward” and continue to hope for sunny ways.

The pandemic changes everything, including the hopey-changey narrative of a prime minister who is clearly not shy about taking steps to remain in power and aim for a majority, such as parting ways with his finance minister. The Liberals will likely take a few pages from the Conservatives’ old play book and move quickly to frame an image of O’Toole before he has a chance to build his brand.

At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate Justin Trudeau’s own branding savvy. The grinning selfies have been replaced by more serious prime ministerial images and, like his father, he is a shrewd communicator with natural gift for marketing himself according the mood of the nation.

New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has named his Opposition critics and, with the backdrop of a pandemic and a possible election, also outlined his priorities going forward and what changes to expect from the party. 1:53

The Conservatives will be tempted to focus on attacking the Liberals over ethics, since the WE controversy provided them with plenty of material. That won’t serve them well in the run-up to an election that could come sooner than Canadians expect.

Instead, the Conservatives should move quickly to control the narrative about their new leader using advertising, and in creative and innovative ways that break through and make Canadians, who have many pressing issues to worry about, pay attention to who he is and what he stands for.

In his acceptance speech, O’Toole said in French that Canada needs a fighter (Le Canada a besoin d’un fighter). He’ll get his wish, as the Liberals will come after him fast and furious. He’d better be first out of the gate with a high-impact campaign that delivers a positive, credible, and engaging message about his vision for Canada, and reflecting a refreshed, more inclusive party brand. Otherwise, he’ll be branded by the competition.


This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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