Last week, while announcing a tranche of of new(ish) infrastructure spending, Boris Johnson declared his desire to ‘Build Back Better’.
In doing so, he joined an impressive, and truly varied list of organisations and individuals adopting the slogan over recent months, from coalitions of NGOs campaigning for a Green New Deal, to The OECD and the World Economic Forum, to political leadership manifestos, Deloitte, Extinction Rebellion, The Financial Times via Richard Curtis and Ban Ki-Moon, and 330 of the world’s biggest businesses, including Adobe, Capital One, Visa, Dow, General Mills, Microsoft and Nike.
As you might guess from such a diverse group, the slogan has emerged to represent a general aspiration rather than a specific agreed set of policies. Originally used in disaster recovery, that aspiration is to rebuild following a calamity not only in the image of what came before, but more resilient, ecological and fair.
An attractive goal then — and there are other reasons to account for its popularity.
Lessons from recent history
Boris is of course well acquainted with the characteristics of effective slogans, having benefited most recently from ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ — and the wider narrative strategies they embodied.
Build Back Better shares some of the characteristics of these — but not all.
Looking back at the campaigns of 2016, it’s instructive to compare the slogans of the winning and losing sides in both of that year’s infamous elections.
The similarity of the losing sides’ slogans is striking, right down to the fonts and colours. And this isn’t just a coincidence — in both cases it represented a wider strategic choice to emphasise authority, stability, and certainty and solidity, and in doing so provide a positive contrast to the opposing side, positioning them as the face of unreliability, uncertainty, doubt, and chaos.
Unfortunately, this was a fatal misreading of the mood of the time. Years of falling trust in politics, in media and all types of institutions, the multiple impacts of technology, and many other factors besides, had created a public with little faith in authorities expressing certainty, saying in effect ‘trust us, we know best’.
What turned out to be much more popular were vague proclamations of intent, of direction and action; of a declared goal behind which people can (in theory) unite to achieve. A description that perfectly fits both the slogans of the winning sides.
For sure, a key element was their essential nostalgia, appealing to a rose-tinted view of the past to which we could return. But crucially, in contrast to their opponents, these appeals were also fundamentally invitational — saying to their audience, ‘let’s do this, be part of making this happen’. (8 years earlier, amidst the gloom of a financial crash, ‘Yes we can’ worked in a similar way).
Of course many other factors contributed to the eventual results in both cases — but they have in common that the strong favourites, claiming certainty and authority, fell to shock, if narrow, defeats.
The risks of openness
Build Back Better shares some positive similarities to the 2016 victors. It is active, open and invitational — demonstrated by the array of entities that have been comfortable in its use.
Despite the ‘Back’ though, it’s not inherently a nostalgic slogan — that being more than cancelled out by the forward-looking ‘Better’. And there’s another, more fundamental difference with the familiar political slogans we’ve looked at.
A crucial characteristic of the slogans of political campaigns is their attachment to a specific candidate or campaign means they come with an extra qualification for their use built-in.
You might, for instance, enjoy the nostalgia and active sense of say, ‘Make America Great Again’ — the way it feels far more open to your own particular interpretation than the sterile technocratic certainty of ‘Stronger Together’.
But to actually use the phrase, it comes with a very specific candidate attached — you can’t have MAGA without Trump.
The issue with a truly open slogan, unowned by any entity, like Build Back Better, is that while it can attract a diverse movement, there is no built-in qualifier, so in theory, anyone can use it.
And thus the risk of moments like last week, when it can easily be taken up by those who may not share the same goals, as a brief look at the substance behind the Prime Minister’s policy announcement demonstrates.
Laudable as hospital maintenance and school construction are, it’s fair to say they don’t feature at the top of many lists imagining a greener, fairer recovery — and neither, more obviously do hundreds of millions of pounds for road network projects or additional prison places.
Indeed, given the government is estimated to have spent £9bn in recent years on projects that actively increase carbon emissions, a £5bn total budget for the programme as a whole hardly matches the level of ambition that many using the slogan clearly feel is required.
In using Build Back Better then, it’s fair to suggest that Boris may well be trying to co-opt the movement rather than join it — and who can stop him? We are left to rely on his conscience — hardly a great position to be in given recent history. Though perhaps some residual sheepishness was on display in his (apparently late) decision to go with ‘Build Build Build’ as the slogan that actually adorned his podium.
Be open — but specific enough
So despite the potential it has to provide the banner behind which an organic, diverse supporter base can form, there are clear downsides to an ‘unowned’ slogan such as Build Back Better.
We do however have a very recent example of how such a device can be made to work — how a movement can be built around a slogan that isn’t formally owned by any specific individual or party, but that is specific enough about what it means to avoid easy, cost-free co-option.
There was plenty of deserved criticism for the recent wave of brands and institutions suddenly proclaiming their belief that ‘Black Lives Matter’ when many of their previous actions and statements had suggested racial justice was hardly their first priority.
But it is exactly the relative specificity of that slogan that allows for the contrast between its use and those actions to easily be made. Unlike Build Back Better, it contains an inherent minimum benchmark — a basic acknowledgement of the need for specific focus on the issue of police brutality and wider systemic racism.
There might still be some friction over who ‘owns’ the slogan — and can speak on behalf of the whole movement — but its narrative power has been undeniable, conveying its core meaning in three words that are just specific enough.
In fact, that so many of the institutions now declaring support were unwilling to do so when the slogan and movement first emerged demonstrates there is a real cost to its use, that a real commitment is made in doing so.
Now what matters of course is actions that live up to those words. And the work of grassroots activists campaigners, whose efforts for decades up to and beyond the emergence of this particular rallying cry have been crucial in everything that has been achieved, will continue to be crucial in ensuring that the promises made are fulfilled, that governments, companies and others take to live up to their statements of support.
An effective slogan?
As a campaign slogan then, it is clear that ‘Build Back Better’ has decided strengths — but also flaws.
It has proven itself effective as a banner that entities from political candidates to global multinational corporations to campaigning non-profits and more can feel comfortable getting behind — no mean feat.
That it is not formally attached to or owned by any of these entities certainly has played a part in this popularity — few are the organisations or individuals that could appeal to such a range of audiences. And its active, invitational tone feels a good fit for the cultural mood, in line with the most effective slogans of recent times.
This openness though, leaves it vulnerable to being co-opted, particularly as its popularity grows. As the diversity of beliefs, intentions and politics of those using it grows, the more the meaning of the phrase is stretched and diluted.
At this point, it’s vague sense of aspiration starts to transition from an appealing characteristic, to a strategic weakness — from common ground to platitude.
We can all sign up for a future that is ‘better’ — but can we be sure we all mean the same thing by that? Each entity using the slogan might have their own specific detailed definition, or set of plans, but without clarity in the words of the slogan itself — or an owner to clarify — maintaining any coherent common meaning or agenda between them, and to the wider public, will be increasingly difficult.
With the momentum already gained, it’s certainly possible that the slogan can still play a useful role. But for that to happen, those that are truly committed to it need to take this moment as a warning sign, as a point at which more definition and points of specific common agreement are urgently needed. That way it can live up to it’s potential as the catalyst for a movement of clear purpose and practical intention.