This Tea Party Will Be the Fad That Flopped

By John TantilloMarketing Expert/Founder and President, Marketing Department of America

I'd bet my Borsalino hat that five years from now the tea party of 2009 is going to be considered little more than a fad that flopped. In fact, it shouldn't even be compared to the monumental event that kicked our great country off with a rebellious bang.

The one thing I know Karl Marx got right was that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.

This is America, I'm never against someone making a buck, but the merchandising of the tea party shows better than anything that we're talking about a fad here, nothing more.

For colonial Americans, tea was a powerful symbol. It was something they drank a lot of and it was taxed heavily and this taxation was something they had no say over. Throwing it overboard said everything that needed to be said. They didn't steal it; they rejected it. This was a statement that went straight to the British purse strings. It might have looked spontaneous, but it was sophisticated and made perfect sense in the context of the time.

Tea has nothing to do with our frustrations today. If tea was taxed at 100% most of us could still afford to drink it. Unfortunately, the tea of this year's tea party is just a recycled symbol and, not only that, this symbol doesn't make much sense.

After all, the colonials had no legal recourse to object to the taxation that was making their lives miserable. We do, even if it means an agonizingly long wait for the next election. Before you protest, you've got to figure out what you're protesting and the 2009 tea party simply doesn't help anyone do that. Being angry isn't enough. In marketing and branding, you must be forsomething --from there you can create a plan that can capture the hearts and minds of most Americans.

The second big problem with the tea party movement is its origin. As we all know, it began in the media with Rick Santelli's rant on live TV. It did not begin with the equivalent of Rosa Parks on a bus (a very vivid protest symbol to a very real injustice). It is always better to start with reality, a "real" person standing for something, not a "media" person ranting about something.

In other words, the tea party isn't really grass roots and these days this perception matters -- the last election showed us this both in the Obama camp's powerful pull strategy and also with the "surprise" reaction to Palin in large part because she was a media and Washington outsider (another pull strategy success -- see my post on that here).

What about the merchandise? Merchandise can make things lose credibility and take away their seriousness -- that's one of the things happening now. Get the mug, but skip the revolution.

This is America, I'm never against someone making a buck, but the merchandising of the tea party shows better than anything that we're talking about a fad here, nothing more.

Just listen to Jason Kang, VP of marketing for Zazzle, an online retailer selling tea party items: "This is probably one of the bigger things -- not counting the election-- that we've seen since the Client 9 sex scandal broke in 2008."

Hey, if a marketer's comparing your "serious" political movement with "Client 9 sex scandal" sales you know you're in trouble. By and large fads don't turn into long-lasting brands and they usually don't originate movements -- they live and die alone.

I'm also concerned that the tea party will do further damage to Republicans and conservatives. I've written about how the Republican brand is in the marketing wilderness (see that post here).

One problem is that everyone seems to be getting too excited about not very much. From the sound of the tea party news coverage, you'd think we're talking about millions of pieces of tea party memorabilia being snapped up by a nation on the march -- I saw one commentator get enthusiastic about 50,000 views of a YouTube video on the tea party -- that's a mighty low number of views for a mass movement especially when surfing dogs can garner millions.

And speaking about numbers, how exactly are the organizers going to measure the effectiveness of this thing? What's the tactical yardstick to determine success? Are the numbers going to have to be Obama campaign numbers or something more modest? And while we're at it, remember how small turnout numbers at some McCain events worked against him . . . once you put them out there, the numbers can come back to bite you.

In marketing terms, the enthusiasm seems a little too desperate and that rubs off on the perception of brand Republican as being desperate as well.

Another problem is a perceived lack of imagination.

Recycling a great political symbol like the tea party only re-enforces the perception that conservatives aren't capable of being creative.

A third problem is negativity.

The tea party will be seen as the Republican party delivering another resounding "no" without offering any solutions. When the colonists dumped the tea, they were demanding representation. When they didn't get representation, they took representation by force -- a positive negativity if you will.

The 2009 tea party isn't part of a constructive negotiation or a revolution, it's a rant without any consequences -- just like Santelli's rant on air. Not paying the portion of ones' taxes going to programs you really object to would be a powerful statement -- but I doubt if the tea partiers are going to get around to doing this.

My sense is that conservative commentators and opinion-shapers who are seen promoting the tea party may very well regret this decision later on when the real protest comes along and leaves them in the dust.

The real protest? Well, that's basically where I think all this is headed.

There's real frustration out there with creeping Big Government and it's probably going to grow, but it's too soon after the election for that many Americans to take a protest movement seriously. Also, none of us can predict the future except to say that it usually surprises us. Ten years ago no one would have predicted that Barack Obama would be president or a company with a strange name like Google would be one of our most successful enterprises.

No one knows what the real protest is going to be that galvanizes the Republican party and possibly even a nation, but my guess is that like the first tea party it will be innovative, memorable and based on the reality of the moment. It will probably be something like twitter-generated protests where hundreds of people spontaneously swarm the branches of banks that accept more bailout money. Or, if we're talking important food groups, let's see what happens if the government puts a hefty tax on fast food -- that'll be some party.

Again, I don't know what the real protest will be, but I guarantee that we'll all recognize it when it comes.

So let's wait for the political hurricane to come and not get too excited about this tempest in a teapot.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics (and almost everything else in life) when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is branding editor for Fridge Magazine, the magazine for small business owners and entrepreneurs. He is the author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."