Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

How Political Brands Are Made

Good branding requires discipline. Thus, brands tend to thrive on clear chains of authority and accountability.

The Republican Party has an unhealthy brand. That’s been clear since well before the drubbing the party took in the 2012 presidential and senatorial elections.

The Republican National Committee recognized the branding problem and undertook an autopsy on 2012 to recommend a path to restoring the brand. But unfortunately for Republicans, despite the party’s ideological emphasis on discipline and authority, the lack of those factors on a party-wide level will undermine any rebranding effort for the foreseeable future.

Authority and Accountability in the Commercial World

Business schools and companies have spent decades formulating a structure for corporations that tries to maximize effective brand management. Take one of the world’s most successful corporate brands, Nike. Nike has a CEO, a brand president, and dozens of vice presidents for various aspects of its brand and marketing. Together with the teams they supervise, and under the guidance of senior officers, these managers ensure there’s a clear hierarchy that shapes the brand’s vision, sets the direction, creates the brand’s architecture, develops messaging, and ultimately approves every piece of communication before it goes out, from Super Bowl ads to product packaging all the way down to letterhead.

Political parties don’t work like that.

Who Runs Political Parties’ Brands?

Previous Generations

Who run brand town?

Who run brand town?

Republicans and Democrats don’t have to worry about what their logo and colors are going to be. Elephants and donkeys were settled long ago by a cartoonist, and blue and red were cemented by TV.

No current party brander has to worry about these things. Likewise, no current party brander has to worry about whether to position the party right or left — that’s been decided over thousands of policies and many generations.

Issue by Issue Changes

Note that politicians still have to worry about where to position themselves and their parties on individual issues. Ten years ago, many Democrats weren’t sure where to position themselves in relation to the Republican drive to invade Iraq. They ultimately chose a supportive position, which failed to differentiate them from their competing brand sufficiently and led to several years of divided electorate. They were only able to take back control of the House of Representatives in 2006 once they positioned themselves further to the left on the Iraq issue.

Intra-Party Authority and Accountability

The only way for a political party in the United States to get any clear chain of authority and accountability is to elect one of its members as the nation’s president. Short of that, no one stakeholder has the gravitas to embody the party and thus the authority to shut down enough of the others to maintain discipline. Let’s look at the current Republican Party: who controls its brand?

There’s Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, which commissioned the famous and widely mocked rebranding study earlier this year. But Priebus can’t dictate what Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell do in their respective chambers. Not even they dictate what they do 100% of the time, as each is accountable to the members of his caucus, and Boehner in particular has had trouble establishing leadership over the members he ostensibly speaks for. And the brand they’re all simultaneously trying to manage can be easily thrown off course by a single rant from Rush Limbaugh, radio spokesman for millions of conservative base voters, as when he attacked Sandra Fluke for testifying before Congress in favor of birth control.

Now let’s look at the Democratic Party. President Obama has reached the highest elective office in the land, which gives him the ability to hand pick the leader of the Democratic National Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tend to try to enact his agenda in Congress and coordinate their efforts to follow his lead. Liberal bloggers and other left-leaning media personalities will tend to find that their audience supports the president, and so they will try not to upset the general branding efforts that come from his office. It’s much different with that authority at the top.

Changing a Political Brand From Below

There’s one more source of authority in a democracy: the voters. Just as not every corporate branding decision has been embraced by customers in the form of sales (e.g. New Coke), ultimately for any political branding change to be successful it has to be ratified by the voters in the form electoral victories.

This is where the Republicans’ biggest branding problem comes from. Their current brand — toxic to Latinos, blacks, young people, and women — has been ratified time and again by their voters. Republicans who support things like immigration reform, that might appeal to Latinos, won’t win primary elections for Congress or state office. Those who might support Obamacare, which would appeal to blacks, won’t win primaries. Those who might support gay marriage or rates on student loans that favor the young over the banks, and thus appeal to youth voters, won’t win primaries. And those who favor protecting women’s reproductive rights certainly won’t win primaries.

But not all grassroots branding efforts are created equal. Compare the current Republican landscape to the most recent major non-hierarchical Democratic rebranding. In 2006, Democratic leaders like then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel didn’t want the party to identify with opposition to the invasion of Iraq, but that demand emerged from activists. Voters ultimately ratified the decision to strengthen a brand more opposed to a deeply unpopular war. The difference here is that the brand that Democratic voters forced on the party was something majorities of the electorate were ready to embrace — Republicans are on the opposite trajectory.

Republican Branding Outlook: Not Good

Outlook not so good

Outlook not so good

The outlook for Republicans isn’t too good. They seem locked into a self-reinforcing cycle of only winning primaries when they appeal to values that will alienate a broader electorate. That leads to only fielding general election candidates that appeal to those values, digging their brand hole deeper.

A rebranding campaign with authority and accountability could lift them out of that rut, but they don’t have any source of high level authority or clear chain of accountability. The rebranding won’t be successful unless it’s led from the grassroots — but the party is in its current predicament precisely because of the broadly unpopular brand preferred by the grassroots. And recent Republican presidential nominees haven’t been strong enough to establish a successful identity, as John McCain and Mitt Romney each tried unsuccessfully to straddle both sides of a fracturing coalition of business elites and social voters.

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