Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

The Unique Challenges of Political Branding

The president of a car company typically has more control over its brand than the nation's president has over his party's brand.

The president of a car company typically has more control over its brand than the nation’s president has over his party’s brand.

When I see corporate branding experts tackling politics, I see lots of analysis of presidential races, but not that much about broader party branding. It makes sense: presidential races command more attention generally, and you’ve gotta go where your audience is. Moreover, presidential races are often the only level of electoral campaigning where anyone even has the capacity to take a formal approach to branding that a corporate branding expert would recognize. And how could it be any other way, when the leadership and accountability necessary for a coordinated branding approach are elusive at a partywide level.

But with all the exposure presidential personalities and issue positions gets, I would argue presidential campaigning is the level of politics where the brand matters least. So a political branding approach that gets too preoccupied with presidential politics is like the old joke about the drunkard searching for his keys under a lamppost. A passerby asks him where he lost the keys, and he points to the other side of the street. The stranger asks why the drunkard isn’t searching across the road, but the drunkard responds that the light is better over here.

Look, for example, at the role of party branding in lower-profile campaigns. The generic congressional ballot, a broad polling measure of party brand strength, is highly predictive of voting in House races. Voters typically know less about their House candidates’ issue positions and leadership qualities, so with fewer details, it makes sense to lean more heavily on other heuristics like party brand. And beyond the House, there are thousands of state legislative and local races where voters typically know little about the candidates — but despite their small races, 50 state legislatures plus Congress add up to an awful lot of influence.

So when David Trahan and Tom Shanahan of Interbrand ask, in their excellent postmortem of the 2012 presidential campaign, “Where will Romney and the GOP brands go from here?” it’s worth wondering what the stakes of that question are. A year later, the party brand is poised to have a big impact on how Republicans do in the 2014 mid-terms, but Romney himself is probably just sitting at home riding in his car elevators and barely tolerating his family:

Haha, Dad can’t even pretend to stand his own family for an entire meal. Bet his
brand will be relevant in a year.

 
But analyzing and controlling a party’s brand is much trickier than analyzing a single presidential candidate’s brand. Think about running a party like running a car company.

Your car company’s name and symbol are hundreds of years old, and you can’t change them. Every two years, you have to launch some new models and retire some old ones, but you don’t really have any control over which ones. Except the models each also have a regional monopoly, so maybe they’re not purely like models. Instead they’re sort of like a model-dealer hybrid. And although the brand is collective, it’s not controlled centrally anywhere.

The company has a president who is personally identified with the brand, and he can veto the collective decisions of the individual models/dealers. But he doesn’t get to dictate any of the brand’s qualities to them, and they aren’t accountable to him. Oh, and if some auto blogger says something particularly incendiary about your cars, people might conflate that with something your brand said.

So political branding is important, yet difficult, to understand below the presidential level. Of course, this sword cuts both ways: no political brand will ever have to worry about corporate branding concerns like pricing strategy, either. But this dynamic is what makes it so interesting when a party needs to rebrand so badly, but can’t stop its brand from ruining its own rebranding attempts.

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