How do I write a piece that addresses a political party’s branding problem in the heat of one of the most partisan national elections in my lifetime without coming across as partisan myself? The only way I know how is to do it the same way I would write a brand audit brief for a company with a similar problem:
1. By acknowledging my own biases so that I can look out for them should they decide to pop up in my analysis.
2. By distancing myself from my own biases for the duration of the exercise.
3. By making sure that the purpose of my analysis is to help, and not criticize or throw stones. Even the political cartoons borrowed to illustrate some of the points in this post are there as illustrations only. They don’t necessarily reflect my opinions.
(And don’t worry, we’ll do one of these for the Democratic national Convention as well.)
If you’re level-headed, carry on. If this is a hot-button issue for you, take a deep breath and try to keep cool. Okay? Ready? Here we go.
1. There’s no problem with the logo.
Most of the time, when the general media talks about a branding problem, they are talking about one of two things: a PR problem, or a logo problem. Let me just get it out of the way right now: although the GOP doesn’t technically have a logo (it has a symbol – the elephant), its symbol is fine. There’s no need to change it. There’s also no problem with the color palette, with the trade dress, or with any of the superficial elements (the aesthetics) of the brand.
2. The GOP’s identity is no longer clear.
What is the GOP? What does it stand for? Whenever I ask a Republican, the answer I get is this: conservative values. At face value, that’s great. It’s concise, it’s consistent, and it’s simple. But once you start to scratch the surface, two problems very quickly pop up. Let’s look at what they are:
A spectrum of gradients: First, conservative values come in degrees. Someone may be mildly conservative (or as some of the people I chatted with put it “conservative by default”). This would make them what most would call moderate Republicans (or even independents with Republican tendencies). On the other hand, their neighbor might be so conservative as to believe that anything that even resembles compromise with Democrats is somehow akin to treason.
Big difference there. Completely different points on the spectrum. These two types of folks are going to agree on a few things, like perhaps less taxes and less government spending, but they are also going to disagree on a lot of issues, starting with practical discussions about how much to cut and where, and eventually growing into fundamental disagreements about gay rights, religious freedom, and perhaps even defense spending. So in and of itself, the breadth of the spectrum of conservatism makes the term too vague to serve as an adequate definition of the GOP’s identity – and that’s assuming that the differences between mild and severe conservatives are linear. They aren’t. Which brings us to the next point…
The spectrum of meaning: Second, conservatism means different things to different people. For instance:
To some Republicans, conservative values may reach back 3,000 years and find their essence, at the core, in Biblical (Old Testament) law. For them, the divine word always supersedes the word of man, the Founding Fathers were Christians whose intent was to create a Christian nation based on Christian values, and the federal government has worked against that intent over the last two centuries to create instead a secular state that is, at the very least, passively hostile to their particular Christian views.
To others, conservative values may have absolutely nothing to do with religion, and may instead simply focus on fiscal responsibility – governmental: a belief that a smaller (or at least more financially judicious) federal government’s primary mandate is to carefully weigh serving and protecting the people against keeping its expenses as low as possible; and personal: a belief that success is up to individuals, and that they, not the government, are to be the architect of their own success (through courage, discipline and hard work). In other words, whatever the opposite of tax and spend is.
These two versions of conservatism are hugely different. Proponents of the first version of that definition may find themselves focusing more on issues like banning abortion, most forms of contraception and gay marriage, while pushing for more religious education in schools, denying the legitimacy of the scientific theory of evolution, and imposing religiously based standards of decency on art, literature and certain types of speech. Proponents of the second version of the definition may be be completely at odds with the first group’s agenda and simply demand smaller government, less spending, and lower taxes.
Digging a little deeper, for others still, conservative values may refer to a return to the gold standard, either military non-intervention or military expansion (even there, conservative values may be in contradiction to each other), the privatization – if not the outright elimination – of certain government-managed programs like medicare and social security, or an expansion of the definition of state sovereignty. For others still, the term may simply refer to common-sense values like work hard, live within your means, be responsible in all areas of your life, be honest and ethical, be kind to your neighbors, etc.
Internally, it seems that fiscal conservatives increasingly find themselves scratching their heads at the religiosity of evangelical conservatives, and the subsequent side-tracking from what they perceive as being the fundamental mission of their political party. The most recent illustration of this problem is the split within the GOP about Missouri representative Todd Akin’s recent statements about abortion rights and the biology of rape. Many conservatives immediately sought to distance themselves from the man, his politics and his statements (the Romney campaign, for instance), but others quickly rallied to support him and what he stands for. More on that here.
The GOP’s identity problem, at the core, is that it can’t decide what kind of conservatism it wants to adopt, moving forward. Realistically, it needs both. But the threat here comes from the zealous nature of the evangelical portion of the party: to them, fiscal conservatism is secondary to their religious beliefs. And so in the absence of a clear path, religious conservatism has begun to take over the GOP platform at the expense of fiscal conservatism. That would be neither here nor there, but a shifting, out-of-balance identity is liable to derail a number of things that the GOP has always had going for it:
- A solid base.
- A clear identity.
- A clear message.
- A unified front.
What is happening now:
- Fiscal conservatives may start getting turned off by the increasing religiosity of the GOP and will begin to label themselves independents. I know quite a few folks who have come to this crossroads in the last couple of years (some have even rather publicly stated that though they were still Republican at the core, they could no longer, in good conscience, vote for religious conservatives). Welcome to core erosion.
- Undecided and swing voters may find themselves increasingly turned off by the GOP’s new religious rhetoric and the faith-based legislation it seems to be focusing on.
Externally, the vagueness of the term conservative values and the breadth and types of division that vagueness creates is confusing to the public at large, particularly undecided voters and moderates, which, in terms of business terminology, you might think of as potential customers. For them, the question regarding the GOP’s identity is simple: is the GOP the party of fiscal conservatism, or is the GOP the party of religious conservatism? In other words, is the focus of the GOP truly to jump-start the economy, boost job growth and fuel prosperity, or is it the establishment of a Christian, evangelical state?
This confusion is at the heart of the GOP’s current identity problem, both internally and externally. Until it can be clearly answered, the party’s very identity (and growth) will be in question.
3. Message confusion.
In a presidential election year, a party tends to articulate its platform by projecting it onto its presidential campaign. Product marketing equivalent: every advertising campaign aims to raise awareness for a product or brand, articulate value to the market, and hopefully trigger a purchase reflex somewhere down the line.
In other words, a campaign is the vehicle through which need, desire, and preference are created, and clarity, identity and value are communicated. Whether you are selling a smart phone, a car, a burger, a candidate or an ideology, it’s all basically the same thing.
Consistency of the message here is crucial. People want to be able to form an opinion about what you’re selling that fits neatly into their world. This isn’t to say that the brand, product, message or value can’t evolve (it can and should), but it shouldn’t create confusion. Unfortunately, there has been quite a bit of confusion in the GOP’s messaging lately, and this is a problem.
Example A: Obamacare vs. Romneycare.
Up until now, the GOP has taken a very hard stance against the Affordable Care Act (dubbed “Obamacare”), and the party leadership as a whole had sworn to repeal it at the first opportunity. Former governor Mitt Romney, now the front-runner in the national election, has been consistently on message about repealing “Obamacare” if he is elected President.
Problem 1: Mr. Romney is well known for having created the precursor of “Obamacare” in Massachusetts when he was Governor there. The similarities between “Obamacare” and “Romneycare” are such that many Republicans were reluctant to support Romney during the primaries this past spring, and even went so far as to paint him as being too liberal. It is important to note that Mr. Romney (and a significant portion of the GOP) stands for less government involvement in the people’s affairs, and more free-market solutions.
There is no fundamental difference between a (state) government managing healthcare and a (federal) government managing healthcare. We are still looking at a government bureaucracy managing healthcare and a good portion of the funding for it coming from our taxes. The argument that the federal government is patently evil whereas state governments are more trustworthy will be argued ad nauseam by some, but the fact remains that government-run healthcare, whether at the state level or the federal level is still considered by many to be socialism. Socialism, as we know, is at odds with basic Republican ideology.
Because of “Romneycare,” the GOP and the Romney campaign find themselves in the awkward position of having to stand against “Obamacare” while having to also defend “Romneycare.” The strategy until now has been twofold: a) Attack “Obamacare” but say as little as possible about “Romneycare,” and b) create a distinction between federal intrusion (“bad”) and state-level solutions (“good”). Note the specificity of the language in that sentence. Unfortunately, even if the wording of the argument is clever, the core of the argument is fundamentally flawed, and that messes with the overall message’s clarity and legitimacy.
Problem 2: Governor Romney himself can’t give up one of his greatest successes as a political figure so far. “Romneycare” is one of his greatest achievements, and he knows it. In fact, in an interview given to Fox News just before the GOP’s National convention, Romney spoke proudly of his healthcare record, drawing some surprise from his interviewer:
During an interview that aired on Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Romney why women should vote for him after a fellow Republican, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), suggested that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”
“Look, I am the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women — and men — in my state,” the former Massachusetts governor explained. “There was talking about it at the federal level. We did something.”
“So, you’re saying look at Romneycare?” Wallace wondered.
“Absolutely,” Romney replied. “I’m very proud of what we did, and the fact that we helped women and men and children in my state.”
(Source: The Raw Story – link)
Again, the fundamental problem is that there is virtually no difference between Romneycare and Obamacare. (This piece from Politifact.com takes a closer look at the similarities between the two programs.) So how can the GOP’s entire platform be against one government-managed program but at the same time have a portion of its leadership (namely its front-runner) tout the benefits of another very much like it?
No matter where you happen to stand politically – Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independent or undecided – the issue here is one of message confusion: can anyone really be for “Romneycare” but against “Obamacare?” Can anyone be fundamentally against government-run healthcare but somehow in favor of it when it occurs at the state level rather than at the federal level? Is government-run healthcare okay when a Republican supports it but wrong when a Democrat does? These are legitimate questions which take away from the clarity and simplicity of what the GOP’s message should be.
Example B: Abortion.
Following the widely unpopular statement made by Rep. Todd Akin in regards to “legitimate rape” and the risk of pregnancy, the Romney campaign immediately sought to distance itself from Akin and his beliefs by issuing this statement:
“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape,’’ a Romney campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg, wrote.
(Source: The New York Times – link)
But several days later, the GOP announced once again that it would continue to push for a Constitutional ban on abortion.
Furthermore, Romney’s choice for a running-mate (Paul Ryan) sends mixed messages as Ryan has made no secret of not only supporting anti-abortion legislation but also going as far as to work directly with Rep Todd Akin (him again) on legislation that aims to narrow the definition of rape (presumably to further limit women’s access to abortions should abortion ever be restricted to instances of rape and incest).
And yet, in his interview with Fox News (see link above), Mr. Romney speaks of the abortion issue in these terms:
““Look, I am the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women — and men — in my state. [...] With regards to the issue of abortion, that is something where men and women have alternative views on that or different views.”
So… are we talking about a constitutional ban on abortion here (GOP platform), a partial ban on abortions (Romney platform), or a signal to swing voters that in spite of all of the current rhetoric, a Romney administration would adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards abortion, much like the Bush administration before it?
It’s easy to see how the general electorate might be confused. It keeps getting mixed signals from the GOP.
To be fair, moderate message confusion like this might be a little distracting, but there’s room for nuance there. Just enough to make people a little uncertain about voting, but not a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination where abortion isn’t a hot-button issue. Severe message confusion, however, looks like this:
The GOP stands for less federal government intrusion into our lives and supports more personal freedoms.
The GOP stands for a federal ban on abortion and will not support certain types of medical care relating to female reproduction (results in more government intrusion into our lives, and therefore fewer personal freedoms).
Government-managed healthcare enacted by a Republican (“Romneycare”) = okay.
Government-managed healthcare enacted by a Democrat (“Obamacare”) = not okay.
Contradictions both in the messaging itelf and in the relationship between some of the messaging and some of the actions taken by ranking members of the GOP are causing enough dissonance in the general electorate (the market) that the GOP’s message is neither clear nor credible to a significant portion of its audience. This is a problem. Imagine the message confusion of a militant 100% organic food brand defending its choice to start selling GMO products under a different label, or a self-professed eco-friendly brand that donates millions of dollars every year to super-PACs that support the elimination of the EPA. Same kind of dissonance.
4. Who’s in charge? The leadership vacuum.
With most brands, a clear hierarchy shapes the vision, sets the direction, drives forward momentum, and controls (at least to a point) the messaging. At the top is the CEO. Below the CEO are the CMO, the PR and communications teams, legal, customer service, etc. Messaging might not always be 100% consistent across all touch-points, but it is usually mostly consistent. Why? Because the direction is agreed upon by the leadership, and an appropriate hierarchy then approves brand communications practices, creates the brand’s architecture, crafts the messaging, and controls the approval process.
Look at how structured messaging is for brands like Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft, Ford and Nike. Clear, simple, consistent.
Now let’s turn our attention to the GOP. We have already touched on the GOP’s identity crisis and some of the inconsistencies in its messaging. Would you like to know why this is happening? Every organization is the same: whenever an issue of systematic confusion arises in the identity of its brand or its messaging, you can almost always trace it back to a leadership problem. The question that helps you begin to resolve the problem is this: who’s in charge?
Who is the GOP’s CEO? Who is the GOP’s CMO? Who controls and manages the GOP’s message today? Who controls the vision? Who sets the direction? Who has ownership of the GOP brand? Can you look at the following image and point to the person in charge? Can you map out the hierarchy?
In the absence of clear leadership and hierarchy in an organization, what you end up with is confusion and uncertainty. The alphas compete for the spot, and each one of them comes with his or her own little tribe of followers. Welcome to infighting and confusion 101. It isn’t that the GOP lacks leadership. The problem is that it has too much of it. Too many chefs in the kitchen, in other words. It needs one. Just one. Not five or twenty or 300. Until the GOP solves its leadership issues, it will not have a clear brand or a unified message. It’s hard to evoke trust and enthusiasm with that degree of uncertainty hanging over your head.
5. If you don’t control the message, someone else will.
Remember the Apple vs. Microsoft ads? What happened there was Apple took control of both Microsoft’s image and message. Apple gave Microsoft a face, a suit, a personality, and a voice. In essence, Apple hijacked the Microsoft brand and reinforced existing biases to create a simple, visceral message about the value of one brand versus the other.
Leadership and ownership are common topics for me whenever I wrestle with organizational dysfunction. Without some clarity about both, organizations of any kind (even flat, loosely federated organization) cannot properly function.
Group dynamics 101:
- There is always a hierarchy. Find it.
- Power vacuums will be filled.
- There can be only one project manager, one CEO, one leader. Either you’re it, or someone else will ease into that role.
If you don’t shape the identity of your brand, someone else will. If you don’t control the message, someone else will.
If this point seems like a repetition of item #4 on this list, you aren’t wrong. In many ways, it is. More specifically, it is the direct effect of a leadership/ownership problem: no clear leadership = a free-for-all of messaging. What does a free-for-all look like? It looks like a soup of conflicting religious beliefs, conflicting economic theory, paradoxical legislative intent, and even in some cases hate speech (characterized by the bizarre resilience of the birther movement, for instance).
Internally, everyone vying for the leadership spot will bring his or her own rhetoric, beliefs, language, and vision to the table. The result is a mess of view points, of conflicting egos and infighting that will a) polarize rather than unify the organization, b) turn a lot of conservatives off from the internal politics of the organization, and c) ultimately disenfranchise a portion of the organization when, once polarized, their “side” doesn’t get what it wants. (Where do you think that the Tea Party movement came from?)
Externally, the result of not owning your own message opens you up to the same kind of hijacking by the competition that Microsoft suffered at the hands of Apple: existing biases against conservative views are amplified and turned into caricature. Through repetition and carefully selected examples (quotes, memes, soundbites and video clips) conservatives slowly become hateful under-educated, xenophobic, nativist, anti-gay, anti-women, science-hating buffoons who can’t seem to understand that the world they live in has changed since the late 1800′s.
Impact: if you’re a radical or ardent Democrat, you probably already thought that, so nothing’s changed. You just feel that “what you’ve been saying for years” has been validated by the news you watch and read. If you are a moderate Democrat – even one who, under normal circumstances, might not feel the need to vote – you saw that fringe as a possible threat, but as a result of this messaging, now see the entire GOP as being taken over by it. The result: fear. The outcome: higher chance that you’ll actually vote this time around. If you’re an undecided fiscal conservative or swing voter, the process is the same: given the choice between an ineffective Democratic party and a xenophobic, anti-science, anti-women, anti-civil rights party, you will either a) not vote this time around, b) vote reluctantly but it might be the last time if something doesn’t change soon, or c) actually vote Democrat.
Remember the point made in item #1: If the identity of the GOP isn’t clear, you’re going to have trouble selling it to anyone who isn’t part of the core tribe. If you don’t control your own message, you have no chance of articulating who you are to undecided and swing voters.
6. Too thick a brand bubble = Koolaid overload.
When an organization focuses exclusively on listening to its own sources at the expense of listening to other opinions, it enters into its very own feedback loop of cognitive bias. I cannot tell you how many people I run into in the GOP who absolutely refuse to read the Huffington Post or watch MSNBC because they are patently liberal media organizations. (And by all accounts, they seem to be.) To an extent, that’s fair. The same could be said of Democrats who refuse to watch Fox News and read Fox Nation. We’ll come back to that.
What’s strange to me, however, is that the fat middle of the news media world has been shunned by many conservatives as well: CNN, the BBC, the Associated Press, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, the New York Times, etc. All of it has been rebranded “the liberal news media” by many influential voices in the conservative movement (I refer you to item #4 above: Who’s in charge?).
Blocking out critical and dissenting voices may be a comfortable way to spend your day, but it keeps you in the dark about what the rest of the world (or in this case the rest of the country) is thinking, saying and doing. It may also shield you from the opinions of dissenting voices, many of them valuable, within your own organization.
Imagine of you were a product manager for a major brand, and the company’s leadership made it clear that any kind of data or consumer insights you garnered outside of your own channels, particularly when these data and insights didn’t paint as rosy a picture as you’d like, were to be thought of as corrupt and biased against you: weakening sales? Not true. The source is working for the competition. Frustrated customers? Not true. The source is biased against us. And on and on and on. Over time, the distance separating the inside of your organization from the reality of the outside world would grow. One piece of positive, pro-brand news at a time, and one piece of rejected criticism at a time, the bubble would thicken until any news, data and insights not produced by the brand’s own approved sources became immediately suspect.
One of the most dangerous things a brand can do is to shun significant sources of data and market insights that it anticipates won’t be positive in favor of data that tells a more positive story. What brands need to to is analyze the full spectrum of data and market insights and determine objectively, pragmatically, what areas they are doing well in and what areas need more attention. Once an organization becomes so focused on itself that it shuns outside points of view, it becomes insular and so detached from the world around it as to lose its value, relevance and competitiveness. I have personally seen moderate Republicans being attacked by more religiously conservative Republicans for “letting the liberal media get inside their heads.” Their advice: don’t watch CNN or network news.
Sorry, but that isn’t a healthy world view. It isn’t healthy, period.
My advice: watch CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Read everything you can get your hands on. Get a full sense for the breadth of the opinion spectrum and let the chips fall where they may. Study the narratives that your competitors build around your brand. Study the shifts in opinion in the market about not only your brand, your products and your industry but others as well. Look for patterns, for changes, for insights, for ideas. Keep your ears and eyes, and most importantly your mind open. Don’t retreat inside a bubble. Break that bubble apart, shatter it, and look for answers and insights everywhere you can.
7. Focusing too much on the core tribe and not enough on potential customers.
Imagine if you were a brand of soda or men’s underwear, and these were some of the numbers you were seeing this month:
Market penetration nationally, 18+: 47% (Source: Washington Post/ABC News)
Competitor’s penetration nationally, 18+: 46%
Market penetration among African Americans, 18+: 0% (Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal)
Competitor’s market penetration with African Americans: 94%
Assuming an error in the polling, let’s make it 3-4%, which is what it was in previous polls. Even that is a staggeringly low number.
What if you dug deeper and found out that 89% of your customers turn out to be white? What would that mean in terms of who your tribe is, who your tribe isn’t, and how you might be able to change that? What would it tell you about not only your positioning and messaging, but your culture as an organization and your identity as a brand? Personally, those numbers would give me great pause. They are rather shocking. (And here, I refer you to item #6: The Brand Bubble.) You don’t want to start becoming this:
Let’s look at another data set:
Women national market penetration, 18+ nationally: 47% (Source: Washington Post/ABC News)
Competitor’s national market penetration, for the same demo: 46%.
Women market penetration, 18-50 in swing states: 30% (a drop of 14% since last year) (Source: USA Today/Gallup)
Competitor’s market penetration for same demo in same markets: almost 60% (compared to <50% last year).
What might have caused the change? In the case of the GOP, the answer comes from Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist and former political adviser to President George W. Bush:
“The focus on contraception has not been a good one for us … and Republicans have unfairly taken on water on this issue.”
Unfairly? Perhaps. But fairness isn’t something you can count on. Decisions and market trends are shaped more by bias than fairness. And saying “no fair” will only turn you into a victim. Beware the comforting lure of tribal mentality. Combined with a shunning of outside viewpoints (see item #6 above) it can skew your perception of the world and change your outlook on the role that you have yet to play in it. You may become more focused on “being right” and proving your position’s argument than on listening and adapting to what your market is telling you. That subtle shift in intent might contribute to your missing legitimate concerns voiced by disenfranchised insiders and undecided outsiders.
In this instance, the GOP’s identity, messaging and value proposition might have recently grown too focused on the needs and biases of the predominantly male, and 50+ customers which constitute the nucleus of its tribe at the expense of other members of that same tribe (namely women). Right or wrong, fair or not, that is what the public is telling the GOP. So now what? Stand your ground, or listen?
Now don’t get me wrong: focusing on your core customers first is great, and there, Seth Godin is right – focus on your tribe first – but too much focus on your tribe can come at the expense of alienating everyone else, especially if it is physically impossible for them to become white or male – or over 50 (at least right this very minute). If you’re a brand, that will cost you significant chunks of potential customers. If you’re a political party (or candidate), those are swing, undecided and moderate voters that you are excluding from your ecosystem. If growth is what you’re after (or at least market dominance), it’s a problem.
Taking a step back: if you want to be a niche brand, focus on your core tribe and don’t worry about having broad appeal. But if your brand wants to have broad appeal and dominate its market (score 51% of the vote), you have to be careful not to systematically alienate chunks of that market.
Again, not a critique. Just an observation – and a kind word of caution.
Okay. I’ll stop here. If this post generates enough comments, we’ll do one of these for the Democratic party as well, just before its convention.
Feel free to add what I might have missed in the comment section below. Oh, and please, let’s try to keep the comment section from becoming a political discussion between Republicans and Democrats. If you disagree with my analysis, great. I want to hear from you. But try to focus on the brand management, business development and marketing communications side of the discussion rather than on political rhetoric. Take a step back from your political beliefs and look at this as if you were apolitical and the GOP were a client. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I miss? How could the GOP do better? Those are the types of comments I look forward to.
And if you want to follow the buzz around Republican National Convention the way digital monitoring agencies do, I built you a Tickr page just for the occasion.
And um… don’t go building your own digital mission control center just yet. We’ll be taking a closer look at how some brands and agencies are doing that very soon. (Disclosure: Tickr is a client.)
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