Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

It’s the Poor GOP Branding Carpenter Who Blames His Tools

If Republicans are going to fix their brand, it’s going to take fundamental organizational changes. Yet Republican branding thinkers — even those who recognize the challenge of making those fundamental changes — continue to recommend tactical changes to the tools Republican candidates and officials use that are pernicious in their simplicity.

Take this piece. The author starts off well. He identifies the growth of “a dangerous gap” in public support “for the GOP that can only be bridged by strengthening the party’s brand.” And he articulates the consequences of that gap:

Until this basic dysfunction is remedied, Republican candidates will be forced to play permanent defense against both their opponents and negative voter perceptions of their own party. In any close race or swing state, that added burden is likely to cost Republicans the race.

Illustration of choice paralysis

When faced with choices, consumers and voters often default to what their emotions tell them.

Yes, exactly! Political parties need a strong brand because individual candidates will have to work harder to make up for it! Emotional perceptions such as those generated by a brand image are consistently found to heavily influence consumer choice.

And check this out: the author even seems to recognize the basic truth I’ve articulated a few times, that a Republican rebranding would require authority and accountability that the Party can’t seem to muster from its leaders or base right now:

A close look at the GOP’s leadership reveals a self-serving Beltway-centric power structure, that isn’t capable of recognizing or remedying the Party’s bigger problem.

Case in point: not a single Republican leader occupies a position of such strength that he or she is capable of assuming the responsibility or moral authority required to rebrand the Party.

Of course, it’s nonsense to say that the Republicans’ brand problem is leaders who are too beltway centric. Some leaders support immigration reform, for example, which could help Republicans improve their standing with fast-growing Asian and Latino demographics. But when leadership has tried to do a little PR around reform efforts, the base insists on keeping the brand shitty.

OK, so this supposed branding expert demagogs a little by flattering the base, big whoop. I’m not going to make a federal case out of that, as it were. But this is unforgivable:

The obvious answer is to ditch the Washington, D.C. political caste and look to those entrepreneurs in the private sector who’ve successfully managed brands for a living.

The private sector is replete with experts who’ve branded multimillion dollar companies and products, many of whom would gladly volunteer their time and expertise to rebrand the Party.

Come on, guy. I thought you were cool. I thought we agreed that no one had the authority or accountability to enforce branding changes on the rest of the party. So which of the many diverse stakeholders would you suggest hires these private sector experts? John Boehner? Rush Limbaugh? The RNC? Because the RNC basically tried that with the Growth and Opportunity Project, and it was so bad everyone just made fun of them:

And this isn’t even the only piece the same author has published acting as if a brand strategy is only about tools. Oh, and by tools, it turns out he basically means micro-targeting.

To see how preposterous that is, imagine a troubled commercial brand: Dell Computer. The company basically shot to the top by coming up with a profitable way to let people customize computers, which was great until the market changed and Dell didn’t adapt:

What Dell needed to do was to figure out a way to provide higher quality at lower cost (HP’s strategy), or much higher quality at slightly higher cost (Sony’s strategy), complete product differentiation (Apple’s strategy), or non-commodity solution-building (IBM’s strategy).

Anyway, the main “take away” from this post is that it’s madness to think that brand marketing can create your brand. It can magnify it a bit, but the brand always eventually reflects the product and the delivery of that product. Dell forgot that and now we get to watch the horrible results unfold.

Dell Sucks cat picture

You can’t micro-target your way out of making products that put customers to sleep.

What’s so frustrating here is that the Republican author of these awful branding suggestions made a point of specifying that he gets the bigger problems keeping this from making a difference! Micro-targeting is powerful, and private sector brand managers could probably help implement it. But changing marketing tools is not going to change the leadership vacuum or the fundamental weaknesses in the brand’s position, which stem from a bad voter relationship with its “products” (policies).

One tool Republicans could make a difference, though. A Republican pollster recently published a piece again identifying the lack of central authority as a limitation on Republican rebranding efforts and ultimately recommending honest polling that doesn’t try to manipulate numbers.

What a surprise, right? A polls guy thinks the answer to every question is polls. But one of Republicans’ biggest problems is their information bubble. It’s one of the most destructive forces in the country, and fixing it truly could help. If every Republican at least realized what makes their position weak, perhaps the party could get around its authority problem by building consensus from the ground up.

But even that tool can only help. The information is already out there — it’s the combination of mindset, incentives, and lack of authority that keeps it from being used. So until that consensus emerges, Republicans are ill served by advice that overemphasizes the power of tools changes.



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