How Brand Strategy Would Make the GOP Stronger
The challenge for brands is to achieve two objectives that are in natural opposition: 1), to stand for a clearly defined but limited set of core values, and 2), to grow and appeal to more and more customers.
Political parties, as brands, face the same dilemma. But unlike product and service brands, political parties can’t grow by launching incremental products and services under the brand’s name or by splitting through sub-branding or launching new brands. The success of political parties depends on appealing to more voters than the competition with an existing platform and candidate(s). They need to rely on the appeal of their platform of values and issues positions as well as the charisma and reputation of their candidate(s) to win elections.
Both major U.S. political parties have gone through brand strategy challenges during their histories. In decades past, the Democratic Party suffered from the rather artificial alliance of Northeastern liberals and Southern traditionalists who were “democrats” only because they didn’t want to associate with the party of Lincoln, which represented union over states and the emancipation of slaves.
In many ways, today’s Republican Party faces a brand strategy challenge as it tries to serve as an umbrella or de facto party for too many disparate factions with different priorities. Some of these factions, in no particular order, include:
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- Nationalist conservatives consist mainly of angry, white, middle-class men who feel disenfranchised by the steady loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs while worrying about hard-working, low-paid and presumably undocumented immigrants rising from menial jobs to threaten their remaining opportunities. They resent the “bad deal” that globalization has dealt them and think it’s time for more economic and immigration protectionism. They have a strong disdain for establishment politicians. If they were in France, they would align with the National Front. This group has found a champion in Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent in Ben Carson.
- Fiscal conservatives are tea partyers and/or libertarians who worry first and foremost about the national debt and the size of government. The purest champion of this faction is Rand Paul. Others, like Ted Cruz, are financial conservatives, but represent the next faction, Social Conservatives, equally or more so.
- Social conservatives care most about preserving or re-establishing “traditional” values, which center largely on Christian/biblical ideals including a particular definition of family as well as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. For this faction, moral issues trump all else, and they tend to be more heavily concentrated in the South. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are champions for this faction.
- Establishment conservatives tend to embrace elements of all other factions but are less one-dimensional. They also tend to be the most pragmatic and open to compromise with Democrats. Representatives of this faction include Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
In the business world, a brand that tries to appeal to too many different target audiences must either split (i.e., create sub-brands or even new brands) to accommodate the different values and priorities of its target audiences or identify and stick to a minimal set of fundamental brand values that all target audiences can comfortably accept. This is what large corporations with diverse business units do.
Splitting up to create new brands (i.e., parties) is not practical for the GOP if it wants to win the presidency. Accordingly, the most effective way forward from a brand strategy perspective is to refocus the party’s platform on those values that all factions can support relative to the Democrats, regardless of their other political priorities and wishes. That core platform, based on the historical values and brand heritage of the GOP, should focus on pro-business policies, smaller government, fiscal conservatism, personal responsibility and strong defense.
Controversial issues like immigration and same-sex marriage that are high priorities for some of the party’s factions should become secondary platform issues, and proposed strategies/policies for these issues should be crafted from the perspective of the core platform, which would negate overly simplistic or radical approaches and favor more nuanced ones. There is no inherent conflict between a party platform based on pro-business, fiscally conservative, smaller government, individual responsibility positions and these secondary issues. There is no inherent conflict with immigration reform. There is no inherent conflict with gay marriage or a woman’s right to choose. In fact, there is no inherent conflict with enforcement of moderate gun regulation as shown by a recent survey in which 92 percent of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, supported moderate gun regulation – just as they support vehicular regulation, air traffic regulation and all other activities that affect public safety.
GOP leaders, as the brand owners, need to take control of the Republican brand soon by streamlining its party platform and identifying credible candidates who represent that new, refocused brand platform. Whether that implies an old-school brokered convention is unclear.
With that done, American voters would have a clear and simple choice for president: A party that emphasizes smaller/less government, fiscal and individual responsibility and strong defense on the one hand versus a party that advocates more government involvement and more emphasis on social programs on the other. Now that’s a meaningful binary choice.
The way forward for the GOP seems clear when put into brand strategy terms. Of course, the difficulty lies, as always, in good execution.