Personality politics has long paved the road to power. Jacinda Ardern knows it, Simon Bridges should have known it and Todd Muller must now show he knows as he vies to be prime minister this September.
This month Ardern and her family were turned away from Wellington's Olive Café due to her own Government's laws. They were quickly chased down and asked back to an emptied table. The story was then blown across international waters.
The Prime Minister's disjointed lunch outing, escalating to a global news story.
By contrast, when the former leader of the opposition Simon Bridges received a death threat, it was a mere blip on the news radar.
The National Party now has a new leader, Todd Muller, and will need to get Brand Muller spot on if he is going to come close in the September election to the seemingly untouchable Brand Ardern.
• Premium - National Party leader Todd Muller's reshuffle rebuff of Simon Bridges
• Damien Venuto: Todd Muller's MAGA hat is not okay
• Mike Hosking: Time for Todd Muller and National to get to work
• Muslim community to Muller: Keep your Make America Great Again cap at home
Auckland University expert in political reporting and marketing Jennifer Lees-Marshment says a politician's branding is crucial for likeability, public buy-in and, as a result, votes.
Both Ardern and Bridges had been obviously marketed to voters since taking leadership roles.
Lees-Marshment, who has over 20 years of research in political marketing in several countries, says Ardern's marketing strategy is near seamless.
Todd Muller's new-look National, Simon Bridges to continue in politics
Shane Jones is getting 'good vibrations' from new National leader
Claire Trevett: The Nat and the Hat - rating Muller's first days as leader
"She almost has the perfect brand right now: both relatable and competent. This puts her in a strong position going into the election."
Ardern's brand building began before becoming Prime Minister, establishing herself as an effective communicator whose skills are now on show in her Facebook Live question-and-answer sessions to her followers.
"Once leader of the party, Labour focused her brand on this. In power, as PM, they have tried to retain her image of being relatable, and then over time in Government she has added competency to it, mainly by overseeing several crises."
Between Ardern's management of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings and now her Covid-19 communication style, her brand has gained momentum, she said.
Lees-Marshment points out there are weaknesses in Ardern's armour - and three years on the Prime Minister hasn't yet told Kiwis what her vision is for the future.
"We've never heard what Ardern's vision for New Zealand is, as she took over just before the campaign started in 2017, then went straight into running the country.
"[Former prime minister John] Key wanted to make us more ambitious and get the economy going and stop Kiwis wanting to leave. Where does Ardern want to take New Zealand? Ardern needs to somehow find the time between now and September to identify and articulate what her vision is."
"A sitting prime minister always has vulnerabilities – the lack of perceived delivery on core issues such as housing which Labour campaigned on in 2017 is a key one."
National's marketing of Bridges did not work in the party's favour, she says.
"National and Bridges seem to have focused on going negative – criticising Labour and trying to position them as incompetent, without offering an alternative product beyond saying they were fit to govern, which no longer holds up as now, as Ardern/Labour is seen as competent."
During the Covid-19 lockdown, Bridges and National's push to return New Zealand "back to normal" was a big risk.
National's approach has been more about responding to "negative insights marketing", that often plays on people's fears, Lees-Marshment says.
It's an approach used by international political advisers Crosby-Textor in the New Zealand, Australian and UK elections.
It is likely that coming into September's election we will see more of this approach from opposing parties, particularly given the negative impact Covid-19 has had on the economy, she says
"Their market research will be looking for potential chinks in Ardern's armour and one is the anger and frustration people feel at their businesses losing money or even going under during lockdown, and also whole industries such as tourism and travel collapsing, with even professionals such as pilots losing their job."
"National will argue they are the party of business and the hard worker and are best to take over and sort everything out.
She says these messages often hit home to those worse-off during a crisis.
"The core thing is, is the political product on offer what voters want?"
"Often parties and politicians forget this and focus on critiquing the other main party without ensuring what they offer is what voters want.
"It remains true that at heart for major parties to be successful they have to listen to voter demands, and create a deliverable product that responds to those demands, and be led by a relatable leader that conveys they are listening and responding. When they forget this … they lose their way, lose touch, and start to slip in the polls."
University of Otago's Mathew Parackal specialises in social issues and research on political polling and voting behaviour.
He says the fact the Wellington café story was so widely read, is success for Ardern's branding team.
"The question to ask is whether the Prime Minister's brand will give Labour another term? It places Labour at an advantage, but there are other factors involved when it comes to winning an election."
His research shows that Kiwis vote according to values, as much as personality politics. Ardern's popularity will grow provided the policies she is announcing are working for New Zealand.
The Prime Minister has done exceptionally well to take us through some of the most challenging crises, he said.
However, when Election Day comes, this is not the only factor that voters will consider.
"The voting public, at some point, need to look past the branding effect of the leaders to scrutinise the policies and values the parties uphold.
"Multiple factors will come into play, such as economy, health, education, employment, housing, and factors like wellbeing and happiness, name just a few.
How the Covid 19 response grew brand Ardern
Victoria University's communications director associate professor Peter Thompson says in a state of national crisis, those in government have the political edge almost always and those opposing are swimming against the tide.
"They are stuck in a position that's purely instrumental and from a political perspective is a bit frustrating. They know that in a crisis it's kind of bad form to take an oppositional position to a government that's trying to do the right thing for the broadest public interest.
Last week the political polls reflected this. Ardern reached 59.5 per cent in popularity while Bridges sunk to 4.5 per cent as preferred prime minister in a Newshub-Reid Research poll. The trend was similar in a subsequent poll released less than 24 hours before Muller rolled Bridges.
Thompson says these results were inevitable unless the Government had botched its crisis management.
"Simon Bridges was down in the polls this week. He was in a difficult position because if he pats the Government on the back and says 'yes we all have got to be one as a nation and rowing in the same waka in the same direction', he loses the possibility of scoring political points against an opponent in the run-up to the election.
"On the other hand if goes out all guns blazing in opposition to whatever the Government does, he runs the risk of being accused of trying to score political points against a Government dealing with a very difficult situation where lives are at stake.
"I think in certain respects he was between a rock and a hard place."
Thompson says arguing against the lockdown on the basis of economic loss can be a disastrous strategy.
"You are jumping straight into a contest of business benefits against public health and people dying"
"As soon as you do that there's only one winner."
Victoria University senior lecturer in media studies Doug Van Belle says personality politics is nothing new and it dates as far back as Queen Victoria's reign.
He says the daily briefings during the Covid-19 lockdown allowed the Government to establish a high level of public trust in the information they shared through media, not in the least from Ardern.
The critical thing is Labour didn't try play politics during the Covid 19 strategy, he said.
"It's a little hard to put your finger on it but ask yourself if you can recall Jacinda [Ardern] ever mentioning parties in any of the briefings.
"From what I can tell, she never implemented any of the rhetorical tricks to suggest that the response was a Labour policy, or a Labour effort, or a Labour initiative. Unlike what we've seen in most other countries around the world, she never said or did anything that even hinted that she was trying curry favour with one group over another within New Zealand."
Can National's new leader bring them back from the brink?
While it is very tough to gain back public popularity after a rating low in the polls, there can be a way back to victory for politicians.
Now that Bridges has been swapped for the fresh but unknown face of Muller, National would be well placed to reflect, listen and focus on proposing positive, constructive policy solutions, experts say.
The party marketing strategy would require a major reset, rebranding and repositioning to make brand Muller successful.
Lees-Marshment says the odds are against a bounce-back, but former prime minister Helen Clark is an example Muller could emulate.
"It all depends if they change or not. Clark got extensive media training and advice and so effectively improved her [branding].
"And going the other way, very few leaders regain popularity after having it and losing it. Britain's Tony Blair is the exception. But again, he made a cognisant effort, informed by co-creative market research, to show he had listened and changed."
Does 'wall-to-wall coverage' sway the public vote?
During the Covid-19 crisis up to half a million Kiwis have tuned in to some of the daily briefings led by Ardern. Far fewer watched the Epidemic Response Committee, which was opposition MPs' forum to scrutinise Government's decisions
Thompson says that the frequency of appearances from the Prime Minister often leads to popularity.
"The daily briefings implicitly do score political points for the government and Arden.
"When you are centre of attention day after day and by in large you perform well, by the very nature of those competent public appearances on television, coupled with a pretty well thought out communication strategy that was reaffirming, supportive and by in large clear.
"When you've got that platform of constant visibility, even if they are not representing the broad political views that you align with, there is a reinforcement of that political credibility.
"That's coupled with the relative invisibility of the opposition."
The Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 also worked in National's favour when John Key was PM. His handling of that crisis, coupled with the public profile, earned him momentum and confidence from New Zealanders.
Thompson says with the Government in the driver's seat and in the news, even if it is for the wrong reasons, the constant visibility reinforces that a politician is an important figure. Many polls around the world right now are reflecting the same thing as in New Zealand – favour towards the incumbent government.
He said that while criticism of the Government abated during the lockdown, more critical voices of policy decisions will emerge as the economy struggles.
"I wonder how quickly people will stop to consider the counterfactual, I wonder whether there will be an attempt to focus very heavily on the downside of the Government's decisions. The fallout of lockdown. I wonder if there will be a bit of a battle to maintain the frame around 'if we hadn't done this where would we be'?
"That will be the argument in the coming months, the economic loss against the counterfactual - which is what did we just get saved from?"
- Olivia Caldwell is a freelance journalist