Branding has a bad name in political discourse. The word is often said with a faint distaste. Presumably people, particularly politically engaged people, would prefer that the clash of party, of policy, of personality not be reduced to the level of marketing dishwashing powder or cars. But given most voters — whom we force to polls with the threat of fines — have minimal interest in or exposure to the details of federal politics unless something significant is happening, and have long since abandoned even the simplest forms of political activism like political party membership, individual and party brands are key to political success.

And that will only become more so as the unitary media of the 20th century — a single public space controlled by a small number of proprietors across three media — recedes into history as the aberration it always was. In an ever-more cluttered, fragmented media environment, branding is crucial not just for media outlets but for political parties and leaders.

Prime Ministers need a brand. As national leader, they need to have a relationship with voters, and you can’t have a relationship with a non-entity (well, not a particularly enjoyable one). It used to take a long time to acquire a brand as leader. John Howard was around Australian public life for decades before he became Prime Minister. So was Bob Hawke, in a far more high-profile role. Keating created an entirely new political character in Australian politics and inhabited it brilliantly, but he’d been in politics for decades as well before he became Prime Minister. Hawke and Keating also rebranded their party as the party of reform, of modernisation and change, the drive of Keating and the reassurance of Hawke combining to enable Australians to accept the most rapid period of reform since WW2.

Julia Gillard‘s brand, as everyone knows, is damaged, and very likely terminally damaged. Last year, after the election, her challenge was to develop her brand, to articulate her personal vision for Australia, what she wanted to achieve as Prime Minister and her agenda for achieving it. She literally admitted that she needed to do this and tried, while many of us were whingeing about her need to do it, to set about doing it.

The carbon price decision, as correct in policy terms as it was, wrecked that, branding her as deceitful. Her, and Labor’s, polling numbers crashed from the day the carbon pricing decision was announced in February, and they’ve never recovered. Her failure to address another issue she had personally identified as being on her to-do list, asylum seekers, played to a wider branding problem for the whole government, of incompetence, an image undeserved in most areas but carefully cultivated by the Opposition and many in the media, particularly News Ltd and the ABC.

Barring a recovery that would make John Howard‘s “Lazarus with a triple bypass” look like a mild angina attack, Gillard can’t lead Labor to the next election. You can’t rule out a turnaround, of course: stranger things have happened. Recall John Howard’s travails in the 1980s, when he was a figure of public derision and mocking Bulletin front pages, before his huge electoral success in the 1990s and 2000s. But that took a wilderness period when even his own party turned its back on him, and a deeply unpopular Keating Government.

The political cycle has dramatically sped up since then, so there’s time for a Gillard rehabilitation before 2013, but not while she’s in office and under the constant scrutiny of the Prime Ministership, particularly when, to her immense credit, she remains committed to actually using power to pursue a useful, if fairly limited, set of reforms.

Who else has a brand suitable for leadership in the Labor Party? We’ve seen what happens when you install unknowns into leadership positions, in NSW, where Labor inserted first Nathan Rees, then Kristina Keneally, into the premiership in an effort to turn around its fortunes. Both were unknown to voters. Voters don’t initially react hostilely to people they don’t know, but the lack of a brand means there’s minimal tolerance for error, no deep roots to secure a leader in popular support even when things go bad.

As it turned out — particularly once she was free of the burdens of leadership, Keneally was actually revealed as an intelligent, engaging woman who might yet have a lot to offer Labor. But you can’t create a brand on the run.

That’s Federal Labor’s problem. Does Stephen Smith have a brand? Well, if he does it’s as one of the hotter blokes in Parliament. Beyond that, he’s intelligent, engaging and very competent, but otherwise unknown to voters. What about Bill Shorten or Greg Combet, the next generation? Combet in particular has some profile from his days at the ACTU, but again, they’re mostly unknown and to the extent they are known, they’re not associated with anything beyond being generic Labor figures.

Simon “safe pair of hands”™ Crean? Hmmm. And the ambitious deputy, that perennial figure in Australian politics? Well, neither side is blessed with thrusting deputies at the moment, and Wayne Swan has publicly acknowledged that the leadership baton has slipped from his napsack.

Oh, except, there is Kevin Rudd. He has a brand. And his brand is far better now courtesy of his knifing by his colleagues. The punters like Kevin much more now since he was done over by the factions than in the final stages of his leadership, although he was well ahead of Tony Abbott on all indicators when he was knocked off.

One of Rudd’s problems as PM was that he failed to build his brand while PM. I just said you can’t create a brand on the run, but Rudd was in an unusual position, having won the Prime Ministership on the basis of being able to project different things to different voters as Opposition Leader, appealing to both more cautious voters who were tired of Howard but didn’t want too much change, and the Howard-haters who would have done anything to turf out the Liberals.

With his enormous popularity, and his adroit handling of the GFC, Rudd was positioned in 2008-09 to craft a durable positive brand from a position of power. Instead, he blew it, blew it any number of ways but mainly, for mine, by allowing the Opposition to define the terms of economic debate, by skipping the chance to have a double dissolution election on the CPRS (dud policy that it was) in February 2010, and by dumping the CPRS.

All of that was fixed by getting knifed. As Malcolm Turnbull discovered, getting publicly executed by your party is a great way to revive your reputation. Before Tony Abbott narrowly defeated him, Turnbull’s leadership was a mess, particularly due to his appalling misjudgement over Godwin Grech. All that’s been forgotten now, particularly by Labor and Greens voters, who would lift the Liberals’ vote to even higher levels if he was leader, and even by the independents, who clearly would be tempted to back a Liberal Government if Turnbull was at the helm.

Turnbull was done over for standing by his principles, while Rudd can make no such claim, but that detail doesn’t seem to have dampened the popular enthusiasm for Rudd. The fact that Labor’s factional leaders are so poorly regarded further strengthens the image of Rudd.

That’s why, barring that improbable Gillard recovery, Labor will turn to Rudd, probably late in 2012, should the government survive that long, which is by no means assured. They’ll turn to him in spite of his profound personality flaws, Downfall-based management style and quite staggering genius for alienating people. Rudd’s the only choice. Labor wasted Gillard when it elevated her to the leadership too soon, and surrounded her with duds from NSW Labor to run her election campaign. Sticking Stephen Smith or Bill Shorten or anyone else in will just waste them too. Labor can’t waste Rudd, because it’s already done it.

Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of what exactly the ALP’s brand is any more, anyway. That’s a problem beyond the immediate capacity of any leader — Gillard, Rudd, Smith, anyone — to fix.