Not long before last year's election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down for a chat with Pierre Trudeau's former pollster. Yes, you read that correctly. Martin Goldfarb, who was the official Liberal party pollster from 1973 to 1992, gave Harper the benefit of his advice (free) at a meeting only weeks before the late-March collapse of the last Parliament and the subsequent election.
The meeting was arranged by Conservative senator Don Oliver, apparently, who had read Goldfarb's latest book, Affinity: Beyond Branding, and thought the Prime Minister should get a taste of some of the insights within those pages.
The book, not much noticed when it was released in 2010, landed in my sights because I'm now working on my own book project (hence the only-occasional blogging) and Martin Goldfarb's work over the decades is a part of it.
On my way from Ottawa to Toronto yesterday, I read Affinity and it is a fascinating look into how consumer/brand culture has worked in Canada -- and, relatedly, what political people can learn from the intersection of those worlds. Harper's Conservatives have been masters of this understanding in recent years -- branding is big with this government, as we know. One wouldn't think that they'd be out looking for counsel from Liberal folks on this issue, but hey, the best politicians understand the thinking of their rivals as much as they understand themselves.
Anyway, while I was interviewing Goldfarb yesterday, getting his views on how the Conservatives have been doing branding, he offhandedly mentioned the meeting with Harper, and said that some of the stuff he was telling me, he'd shared with the Prime Minister himself about a year ago.
The meeting took place at the Prime Minister's office on the third floor of Centre Block. "Have you ever been in this room before?" Harper asked Goldfarb. "Yes," the pollster replied, "but when the office belonged to a previous occupant."
Goldfarb was under no illusions that Harper had read the book, but he gave him a little summary of the political-brand counsel contained in the final chapters. Here are some snippets (or you could go buy the book.) Keep in mind that it was written before the election, and that it's coming from a man who, though no longer the party pollster, would prefer to see the Liberals in power, even if he thinks the party has lost its way.
- "Harper is still searching for the big idea that will establish his brand promise for himself and his Conservative party.... A series of attributes unconnected to a big idea, or a brand promise, will not attract people."
- "Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Liberal Party without thinking how to put his imprint on the Liberal brand. ... I believe Ignatieff's writings are his true thoughts. He is now trying to speak as if those writings never happened. The public smells that he is not transparent with them."
- "(Paul) Martin, as leader, could not convince the public that he was bigger than his ideas."
- "Dion's environmentalism was admired, but it was never connected to the Liberal brand or convincingly related to Liberal values."
Goldfarb doesn't believe that his meeting with Harper had any significance in ensuing political events, or the Conservative party's majority election win. He still thinks Harper is lacking the "big idea" and that Liberals have still lost their way. And what did he think of the man who now has Trudeau's old office?
"He was very polite," Goldfarb said.