The Political Brand Fallout in Indiana

Indiana’s unfolding drama with legalizing discrimination has spawned a nationwide media storm, boycotts of the state, and one compromise bill that just made everyone unhappy.

This has caused damage to the political brands of the state of Indiana and nationwide Republicans. After decades of building electoral successes on “God, guns, and gays,” Republicans were clearly caught off-guard by how rapidly public opinion on equality is changing:

[T]he state’s Governor and Republican legislators seem to have stumbled onto one of those tipping point moments when the balance of public sentiment and action doesn’t just shift but shifts dramatically, with the initial shift building on itself.

So there is brand damage here, but that term is deeper and more nuanced than most analyses of the “reputations” of those affected or who “won the week” might suggest.

Branding theory helps shed a greater light on how this explosion evolved and its impact on Republicans. Start with David Aaker’s brand benefits rubric, which I discussed in my 2014 election recap. I recommend reading more about this consistently useful rubric, but here’s the simple way to think about the different types of benefits:

Functional Benefits: The most basic brand promise. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I expect something that does ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I expect him or her to do ____.”

Emotional Benefits: The feelings a brand triggers. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I feel ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I feel ____.”

Self-Expression Benefits: How a brand help individuals express their identities. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, I am ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, I am ____.”

Social Benefits: How a brand affects individuals’ perceptions of where they fit in. For a consumer, “When I buy Product X, the type of people I relate to are ____.” For a voter, “When I support Candidate X, the type of people I relate to are ____.”

These various benefit types come up frequently in commercial branding, where they help create points of parity (POPs) and points of differentiation (PODs) between any given product and the competition.

For example, everyone knows that Tesla cars’ electric motors are a POD, giving people the benefit of expressing their au courant and socially conscious sides. But just as important to the brand’s success is how the ~$100k price point and rich design function as a POP with other luxury cars, framing Tesla’s place in the market (and giving people the benefit of feeling accomplished and relating to other high-achievers).

Tesla used points of parity like price to show it belonged with luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes, while using its electric motor as a point of differentiation to stand out.
Tesla used points of parity like price and styling to show it belonged with luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes, while using electric motors as a point of differentiation that could help tip a customer’s decision.

So how do these benefits and POPs and PODs apply in Indiana?

Functional Impact

What Indiana has done by passing this law is explicitly violate a core POP among states — namely, the general promise that states do not exist to officially single anyone out for legalized mistreatment. It’s not quite the core functional benefit of the American “state” as a brand, but it’s close.

Maybe a comparable example would be a toothpaste brand that doesn’t quite say it will no longer clean teeth, but does say it will no longer make breath fresh. Would you be OK with that toothpaste?

Nonetheless, the reason this particular law has resonated so strongly is that losing that POP has cascaded through other types of benefits for so many.

Emotional Impact

All of a sudden, a lot of people had a reason to feel anger about Indiana. And not just coastal liberals, but even local newspapers and business leaders. If you count “not feeling incredible anger at our state” as an emotional benefit, this is probably something Indiana would want to be a POP that instead became a POD.

Self-Expressive Impact

Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff is getting a lot of credit for loosing the avalanche of pressure on Indiana with his early ban on employee travel to the state. But that move was about more than economic sanctions. Look at how he phrased it:

That statement very eloquently expresses an objection to discrimination a lot of people can identify with by framing is as an expression of protection and compassion. Sending people to Indiana wouldn’t just be tacitly condoning a questionable law, in other words, but would really be throwing people to the lions of intolerance.

Again, offering this opportunity for people’s self-expression was a negative POD for Indiana. Notably, other states that were considering similar bills, like Arkansas and Georgia, opted to reconsider those bills rather than introduce a POP with Indiana on this dimension.

Social Impact

With an unusually wide variety of individuals and organizations standing up to speak out against the law or its principles, Americans of all stripes could relate to at least someone when they opposed the new law. These public opponents include:

  2. Ron Swanson portrayer Nick Offerman
  3. Wilco
  4. Corporate leaders
  5. The Indianapolis Star
  6. Governors and mayors
  7. The schools playing in the Final Four in Indianapolis
  8. USC’s athletic director
  9. Religious groups
  10. Gaming nerds
  11. David Letterman:

But the social impact cuts both ways, as proponents of the law also got some people to identify with — namely, Republican presidential candidates and potential candidates who either supported the law directly or at least its general principles:

  1. Jeb Bush
  2. Ben Carson
  3. Ted Cruz
  4. Bobby Jindal
  5. Rick Perry
  6. Marco Rubio
  7. Scott Walker

Though several of these contenders left a little wiggle room rather than directly supporting the law, evidently none of them felt they could afford to make opposition to the law a POD between themselves and their competitors in the minds of Republican primary voters.

But just like Indiana Republicans, these national Republicans may have been blindsided by the inflection point that this law has turned out to be for America’s cultural consensus. That brand positioning outcome has effectively locked many of them into negative emotional, self-expressive, and social impacts with a wide swath of voters for the duration of the race.

Now THAT’s how a news event like this damages political brands.