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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: The reluctant brand

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, right, issues an oath to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne as she accepts a ceremonial White Hat in Calgary, Alta., on Oct. 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Ontarians are bracing themselves for a storm of political name-calling over the coming weeks now that a provincial election has been called. Between that, Pauline Marois’ stunning defeat in Quebec over the contentious Quebec Charter of Values, Alison Redford’s resignation in Alberta and the ongoing deluge of Rob Ford headlines, it seems the character of all Canadian public servants is under the microscope right now.

But then there’s Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, perhaps the most powerful personal brand in the country. This essay from regular contributor Chris Koentges explores whether a modern politician can represent both a brand and real ideas in an age when voters are consumers and politics is marketing.

Want to position a hopeful politician in the age of post-hope politics? This is the Holy Grail right now. You have to be some kind of an amazing fake or an honest to God rube. Or you have to be Naheed Nenshi. You have to embrace the sort of paradoxes that destroy most political brands before they’re ever launched.

In the final, frantic hours of the 2010 campaign that transformed Nenshi from just another irrelevant Calgary egghead into the most powerful political brand in Canada, Nenshi and his campaign director Stephen Carter argued whether they had run an ideas campaign or a branding campaign. In those hours, when voters began uploading the YouTube anthems and delis named sandwiches after him, trying to bask in the magic glow of whatever bottle of lightning their campaign had caught, Nenshi still insisted it was an ideas campaign.

Anyone who has read some Cicero and is also flipping through a magazine called Marketing, won’t balk at the paradox that ideas might also be the brand. Nenshi is a former business professor, a onetime McKinsey consultant. He’s fundamentally wired to put the two together. You’ll have to forgive those political scientists, though, who didn’t realize it was marketing they have been studying all along.

And if you’re into paradoxes, consider that more resources are devoted to political marketing right now than at any point in history, only to drive an ever-deeper customer distrust—not just for each of the specific federal party brands the marketing is designed to support, but for the entire product category itself. Pundits like to sum up this era of post-hope politics by citing this Gandalf Group poll’s findings: “While 72% of Canadians tended to see normal commercial advertising as truthful, only 30% believed they were getting any truth from political ads.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

What other product category does this? While Coke and Pepsi may battle aggressively, their respective CEOs would be strung up in the boardroom if they remotely damaged, let alone destroyed the category of cola in the process.

To be sure nobody would doubt Nenshi was running anything but an ideas campaign in 2010; he even went so far as to title it the Better Ideas Campaign. When people asked what his politics were, he’d say politics in full sentences, and then start explaining his better ideas. And because some of his better ideas had to do with accountability and transparency, I was given access to the campaign’s final waking hours, and later allowed to exist as a fly on the wall in his office, an experience that shaped my perception of the mayor as a reluctant brand.

The final week of a campaign is when all the careful planning unravels. Volunteers go rogue. Money evaporates. There are the agonizing internal “discussions” about how far to compromise the brand. When the phone bank would go down, nobody asked me to step out of the room. When campaign staff would get drawn into flame wars on Twitter, nobody said don’t write that part.

Nenshi is known as the social media mayor, but in the weeks leading up to those frantic hours, he had co-opted Brownie Wise’s 1940s Tupperware shtick, going into the oversized living rooms of Calgary’s far-flung white-bread suburbs to sell his better ideas at what they were calling “coffee parties.”

I watch as this shabby Muslim bookworm from N.E. Calgary would zero in on the most cynical guy in the room, the guy he knows is quietly seething with decades of pent-up anger or mistrust. Nenshi does this Jedi thing. No words. No blinking. Like their brains are suddenly locked together. I know you’re not buying what I’m saying. Never confrontational, more like, come on, just ask me anything you want. And all those years of frustration would bubble out in words that didn’t necessarily go together. At which point Nenshi begins to re-arrange the words.

He spoon-feeds an even more incisive anti-Nenshi rhetoric back to the guy, better even than his opponents can put it. But it’s the words he doesn’t say that become important. I know the newspaper columnists you read, the talk radio you listen to. They don’t know you. I know you. He and the guy would discuss different contexts. How’d you reach your conclusion? Here’s how I got to mine. You got a better way? We’ll go with yours. And without fail, the guy admits he kind of likes Nenshi’s way, and suddenly starts beaming. Says he has some friends to call before the polls open. This is how politics is supposed to work. And Nenshi is off to another coffee party.

That night, and all through the next evening as votes were counted, the campaign manager Carter insisted that it was a branding campaign. That any successful political campaign from that point in history forward was, by definition, a branding campaign. Carter had already honed Danielle Smith’s brand to transcend humdrum rural victimhood and cookie-cutter right wing intolerance in her provincial Wild Rose party. After branding Nenshi, Carter was hired to rebrand Alison Redford—to beat Smith. He was named Redford’s chief of staff but left, before her brand imploded, to become the National Director of Campaign Strategy for Hill+Knowlton. Carter is now one of the hottest political strategists in the country. Meanwhile, Nenshi’s sentences keep getting longer. So I don’t know, maybe ideas or branding is just a question of semantics.

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