“Imagine David and Goliath. We’re the slingshot,” reads the blurb for The Clerkenwell Brothers, the London-based creative agency co-founded in 2016 by siblings Cass and Nick Horowitz. With a roster of clients that include a beetroot crisp manufacturer and the vegan cake brand Oggs, whose magic ingredient derives from chickpea water, their mission statement sounds like fairly average bluster in the business of disruption. But it adds a certain frisson to the narrative when you realise that Cass Horowitz has spent the past three months placing his slingshot into the hands of the chancellor of the exchequer.
Appointed in April by the Tory strategist Dominic Cummings, Horowitz has been charged with transforming Rishi Sunak’s public image among young, digital-friendly voters, mostly via social media posts featuring pithy political slogans in catchy graphic fonts.
It’s helped to affirm Sunak’s public appearance as a bright-eyed youngster — independent, responsible and cool-headed under pressure. So far the efforts have been rewarded. Throughout the course of the pandemic, in which the leadership has staggered, smiling Sunak has emerged as odds-on favourite to be next in Number 10.
To be fair, Sunak is a gift of a branding opportunity. Suave, trim, with a Trudeau-esque barnet and the ability to pull off a hoodie with some degree of charm, the 40-year-old politician has an easy glamour that even a quite advanced search on Google images can do little to confound.
Blessed with almost zero visibility before his appointment, Sunak has quickly cultivated a sartorial signature — inky suiting, super-narrow tie, foreshortened trousers — that befits a modern leader. While other members of the cabinet appear fusty, frayed and frantic, Sunak glides among them looking like a Disney prince.
Of course, as pointed out by this paper, Sunak’s popularity of late has owed much to his new role in playing Covid Santa Claus, skipping through the dales of economic meltdown while dispensing billions in rescue packages, kickstarter handouts and — this week — cheaper meals.
Presumably Sunak has plucked the cash he is showering upon us from the secret orchard of money trees wherein he gets his headshots done: dozens of stage-managed social-media posts that find him striding through verdant backdrops, eyes evading the camera, face towards the sun.
This week’s announcement that he was bailing out the arts industry with “a world-leading £1.57bn rescue package” was accompanied by a picture of the chancellor looking Puckish in a blurry sylvan glade. The words “we stand together” were typed in neon pink across his forehead, while his handwritten signature was stamped in the bottom of the frame.
Even for those familiar with brand Sunak, it was a little disconcerting. At first, I thought he might be the lead in one of those Sunday-evening films starring a British dame discovering a secret passion for ballroom dancing. Someone else suggested that he recalled an award-winning vintner behind a new artisanal wine.
Yet, despite the good-guy persona, I find something slightly jarring in the tone of Sunak’s brand. He may prefer the Princess Diana coy-eye for the camera, but he’s still pretty comfortable suggesting every big decision has been accomplished entirely on his own. In particular, the ever-ready Sunak signature reminds me of Donald Trump waving his nib about while signing executive orders. It’s a bravura bit of showboating from a politician who is not actually running a campaign. Or is he? As many have observed this week, Sunak’s prime ministerial ambitions are becoming more transparent by the day.
Or perhaps the signature is simply a phenomenon of modern politicking? In the US, Joe Biden has finally started ramping up a campaign on social media that also puts his name on legislation and policy he plans to pass. It’s a tactic designed to feel more personal: with this digital signature, one’s name becomes one’s bond.
But you would think that putting your name so boldly on all financial policy during a period of mass unemployment and instability might be foolhardy for Sunak, the man most accountable if his kickstarter fails to sail. It makes me wonder who exactly is dispensing the advice that’s guiding him? Building such a powerful cult of personality might be a product of youthful chutzpah, but Sunak’s confidence might be a mis-step in a convoluted game.
Boris Johnson meanwhile, has been strangely dormant on the front bench as his young protégé steps up. But beware the slumberer. Brand Sunak is growing ever more powerful. But who is David, who the slingshot, and who Goliath here?
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