Rebranding is a common step for companies. Whether consumers have lost interest or reputations have been tarnished, or new competitors have disrupted the market, it is essential to adapt and, sometimes, rebuild. The same goes for Brazilian political parties – which often operate as for-profit corporations, using the system to cash in and give money to their leaders. Mistrusted by voters, many parties will be present on the ballots next week under a different name to the one they used in previous elections.
As Brazil experiences its worst crisis of representation since returning to democracy in 1985, parties have decided to “rejuvenate” their brand and “connect with voters.” Of course, that’s their official discourse. However, name changes are based on pragmatic calculations: they are an attempt to erase the (often scandal-ridden) past and benefit from voters’ short memory to free themselves from a bad reputation.
In a universe of 35 political parties, most of them with some representation in Congress or state legislatures, picking a new, catchy name could prove to be a competitive advantage. And, as only 16 percent of Brazilians trust parties, the first step of the rebranding is to slash the word “party” altogether. Many parties now bear names that look more like a call to action.
One of them is Podemos (We Can). Although often misconstrued as a reference to the anti-establishment left-wing Podemos party in Spain, the name change was, in fact, a nod to Barack Obama’s famous “Yes We Can” campaign slogan used in 2008. Other examples are Avante (Forward), Progressistas (Progressives) or Patriota (Patriot).
According to Claudio Couto, a professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas and a political columnist at The Brazilian Report, two main factors lead to political rebranding. “First, because their original name got worn out and a name change is a way of trying to wipe the slate clean.” A second reason, he continues, “is the loss of prestige of the institution of the political party as such. By dropping the word ‘party’ from their name, these parties want to come across as organic institutions from civil society instead of part of the establishment.”
Notable rebranding cases
Mr. Couto mentions the Progressistas as a textbook example of a party trying to erase its checkered past. It used to be called the Social Democratic Party (PDS) and was a successor of the National Renewal Alliance (Arena) – the party of the military dictatorship. In 1993, it merged with the Christian Democratic Party to form the Reform Progressive Party (PPR). Two years later, it became the Brazilian Progressive Party (PPB), then the Progressive Party (PP), and now, just Progressives.
Another party filled with political clans that supported the military is the Democrats party (DEM) – the first to abandon the “party” denomination, back in 2007. Traditionally strong in the Northeast, thanks to its many traditional local dynasties, the party had been losing ground to the Workers’ Party. From one of the country’s most powerful forces, it suddenly saw itself as a medium-sized political group, flirting with irrelevance.
The party has now regained some of its force – but it is hard to determine how much of that is due to rebranding, and how much is capitalizing on the anti-Lula, anti-Workers’ Party wave that has swept the country.
The most recent case of a name change is that of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), formerly known as the “Brazilian Democratic Movement Party” (PMDB). Currently associated with corruption scandals, the party tries to reclaim its image as the party which opposed the dictatorship.
The generals kept in Brazil a bipartisan system, with Arena serving as the regime’s political branch, and MDB as an opposition force with little power. But the party was pivotal in the country’s democratization process and the elaboration of the Constitution. We will see next week how successful the strategy will be. However, the figure of President Michel Temer – the most unpopular head of state in Brazilian democratic history – might prove to be too destructive.
New names, same practices
The most-established parties in Brazil’s political scene are, not by coincidence, those who have kept their names since their creation, such as the Workers’ Party (1980), the Social Democracy Party (1988), or the Democratic Labor Party (1979).
The parties that are continually rebranding are known for their lack of ideological depth. They are gateways for politicians who want to be a part of the sitting administration – whatever it may be. In Brazil’s fragmented political system, presidents can only govern with a broad coalition – and these parties are always available, depending on the price. “Pragmatic politicians with only their career development in mind flock to these parties, as they can get cabinet positions,” says Claudio Couto.
But while parties are worried about their names and logos, there is little work being done to change their practices. Women remain sidelined in partisan politics, as reporter Marcelo Soares recently showed on The Brazilian Report. And the same archaic party structures stay in place.