Why Republicans Are Winning the Battle of the Brands

Folks, let’s take a look at Republican and the Democrats. Republicans first.

For some time I’ve been saying that a Republican Party renaissance is only going to arrive when the GOP embraces two critical, very real marketing points about their own party:

1) The Republicans need to recognize their Target Market and serve them (i.e., a center-right electorate that believes in the opportunities provided by free-market capitalism and limited government).

2) The Republicans must stop being seen as the party of “no.”

Well, last week’s elections showed that this is starting to happen. Sure, the elections can be seen as a repudiation of Obama’s policies, but they are also a sign that the Republicans are learning the right marketing lessons quickly.

Let’s start with point #2 first. Yes, the Republicans are still voting "no." That’s what a legislative opposition does, after all. But they are saying “no” less and less. For example, everyone on both sides of the aisle agreed and voted together to extend unemployment and housing benefits last week. -- That’s the kind of situational help that most Americans accept from the government. But it was a different story on the health care vote which just barely squeaked by.

Even more important, though, is the fact that a brand can say “no” in two distinct ways. First, it can say “no” in an utterly negative way. Earlier this year, the Republicans were doing just that, and it represented both a lack of positive forward momentum and a dearth of new ideas worthy of their brand. The Obama presidential victory had shaken up the Republican Party, as had the massive un-Republican spending of the Bush-era.

But the intervening months have seen the Republicans begin to return to their core principles. As Dick Armey recently put it: “When Republicans are fighting against the power of the state, we win. When we are trying to advance it, we lose.”

This means that the social-issue aspects have been eclipsed by the type of freedom- and opportunity-based concerns of groups like the tea partiers.

This brings us to real marketing point #1: the need for the Republicans to recognize their true Target Market. This is, after all, a center-right nation. We are simply not America circa 1932, with huge disparities in property ownership. Most people don’t want a different American dream —they want to get back the American dream that they know and still believe in.

The Republicans triumphed in the two important gubernatorial contests last week because both candidates represented positive opposition to the president and his party’s big-government platform. By the way, Hoffman’s loss in upstate New York should give the far right of the GOP some caution, since it suggests that the GOP does best when it sticks to its Reagan-esque core and should, in fact, aim to expand its “big tent” rather than shrink it.

In March of this year, I wrote the following about the GOP:

The Republican Brand is in a deep brand crisis. This is not the kind of brand crisis that comes from losing a few elections, making a few tactical mistakes, falling asleep at the political switch.

Nope. This is the kind of brand crisis that comes from a cumulative loss of brand identity, strategy and implementation.

Make no mistake: This is the kind of crisis that can sink a brand.

I advocated a return to poli-marketing, the application of marketing to the political process:
Successful brands have clear-cut visions of the future that are positive, not negative. End of story.

Reagan was not so much against big government as for small government and the wherewithal of the American people to make good choices if they were just left alone to do it. With a positive brand vision, consumers/voters know where the brand plans to go and grow.

I have to say that I’m surprised that the Republicans seem to be getting it together this quickly. There’s still a lot of work to be done to re-build and clarify the brand, but bottom line: they’re back in the saddle if they stay on this trajectory and keep remembering their Target Market. Ronald Reagan would be proud.

Now for the Democrats.

The Democratic Party is going the opposite direction… Not only because of their election night losses, but because of the ideology that is increasingly crippling their marketing strengths.

Bottom line: the Democratic Party has made a return to its Rooseveltian big-government roots and has begun to push its agenda onto its Target Market rather than serve its Target Market’s needs.

John Gordon Steele wrote a terrific piece on liberal ideology in the Wall Street Journal this week. Here’s the link, and here’s the final paragraph (the “wolves” are what he says the liberals historically considered capitalists):

But in a world where a majority of Americans work at white-collar jobs, have high-school and college degrees, own their own homes, and hold financial securities in their own right, the so-called wolves are now a majority. If liberals don't begin to take that fact into account in formulating policy, the Obama administration will not only be an unsuccessful liberal administration, it may well be the last liberal administration.

Hallelujah —someone gets it! But the Democrats certainly don’t.

Roosevelt’s brilliance was that he knew his Target Market. At the time, Roosevelt knew that people needed hope and help, and he gave it to them in the form of socialized, democratic policies. Democrats today want to rehash the Rooseveltian idea —but Americans don’t.

When will the Democratic Party get it?

The Democratic Party is forgetting that their Target Market is center-right, and that the electorate that swept President Obama to power simply does not subscribe to the old-fashioned, Rooseveltian paradigm. Obama said he wasn’t selling the Rooseveltian paradigm, and if he had tried to sell that paradigm, I guarantee that he would not have been elected. Fuggedaboutit!

Political marketing aka "poli-marketing" dictates that when you lose an election, you take the loss as an excuse for some serious data collection. You comb through the data to hunt for everything that it is telling you about not meeting the needs of your Target Market. Well, if people like Paul Krugman are any indication —i.e., blame the voter not the candidate— then the Democrats will be more inclined to blame Fox News and Rush Limbaugh for the losses than to see the data as a repudiation of their own agenda. So just what are Krugman and these other geniuses thinking? They’re not thinking… they’re being driven by what they want to believe —not what the data is telling them.

Further evidence of the Democratic Party’s decline into fatal, darn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead marketing is this past weekend’s health care bill “victory.” The bill, which appears to be  stuffed with classic big government expenditures and incorporates few, if any, of the conservative, free-market innovations for bringing down costs, squeaked by in the House and then earned a “courageous” from the president.

Whenever a president calls the legislative action of Congress “courageous,” as Barack Obama did, the marketing man in me hears “good work, we’ll push this product down the Target Market’s throat until they like it.”

Stay tuned… this is lemmings going off a cliff. If the lemmings keep cliff-diving, the Democrats will be hearing loud and clear from the Target Market.

And remember, the business of politics and the business of life is always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and president of the Marketing Department of America. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.