Now that the Texas primaries are over and it’s clear that unlike the most of the country, mainstream Republican candidates could not turn back Tea Party momentum, a lot of moderate conservatives are scratching their heads and wondering where their party is headed. Political operatives have plenty of opinions regarding grass roots organizing, fundraising, etc., but I’m a marketing/messaging guy, and it seems to me the Texas Republican party has a branding problem.
The corporate brand is a complex concept. It holds the visual and verbal identity of the business and establishes an association between key stakeholders and the business. It represents the business’s promise to its stakeholders – known as the brand promise – and if it consistently delivers on this brand promise, it builds value for the company. This value is sometimes called brand equity.
One way to understand brand equity is to think of it as the additional margin, or premium, a company can charge compared to its competitors. Starbucks has terrific brand equity. It has consistently delivered on its brand promise and earned the trust of its customers, which is why it can charge $2 for a cup of coffee when competitors can only attract customers at say, $1.25. The $.75 difference in price is the brand equity Starbucks commands.
Now, let’s return to Texas Republicans and the Tea Party. The brand promise of the mainstream Republican party has traditionally been fiscal and social conservatism. The term “conservative” is generally accepted to mean “risk averse,” which in politics means a platform that promotes the status quo, or small policy changes that have small risk, and perhaps small benefit as well, but generally move the nation, state or community in a more prosperous direction, fiscally speaking.
Socially, the conservative brand has represented the mores and values of the white, straight, mainstream (as opposed to fundamentalist) Christian male. Generally speaking that has meant more protection of civil liberties for heterosexual white married couples as opposed to any other race or sexual orientation, but also opposing government intrusion into personal business, which tacitly includes what happens between consenting adults of all persuasions. This also meant general support of the right to practice one’s religion without crossing the line of the separation of church and state.
With the rise of the Tea Party and anti-government sentiment, the conservative brand has been co-opted. Although the Tea Party is by no means homogenous or even organized around a consistent platform, the actions of those elected under its banner have broken the traditional conservative brand promise. They no longer represents a risk-averse fiscal platform, but one that holds catastrophic risk – underfunding our institutions and infrastructure in an attempt to return to pre-New Deal regulatory and social safety net environment of the 1920s. Actions that are inconsistent with fiscal conservatism – such as alarming our creditors by threatening to default on our debt are prime examples of this new, risky platform.
Socially, the fundamentalist Christian viewpoint seems to be the most dominant among Tea Party candidates, or perhaps only the loudest? Again there’s no consistent platform, but there seems to be a clear drive to make Christianity the official religion of the nation, to incorporate Christian doctrine into our public schools and textbooks, and promote intolerance of other religions and actively undermine civil liberties of those who are not white and heterosexual.
Additionally these fundamentalists seek to devalue science and fact-based approach to learning and teach Creationism with equally validity as evolution. One could go so far as to say there is a general anti-intellectualism among many Tea Party supporters. None of this is part of the traditional conservative brand. Instead of opposing government intrusion, it actually requires the government to become more involved in your personal decisions.
So, from a branding marketing perspective, what we have here is a broken brand. The key stakeholders are confused by the actions of those elected under the “conservative” banner and they no longer trust or believe in the brand promise. The brand has lost its equity and can no longer charge a premium, that is to say, fundraising will become more difficult as stakeholders look for value in competitive solutions. To remain viable, the mainstream GOP has to do something.
As a passionate marketer, I would start with a big re-branding campaign, of course, and a return to the traditional “risk averse” meaning of conservative in fiscal policies, while at the same time embracing a more inclusive social policy platform – one that pulls government back out of our private lives and supports equal protection of civil liberties for all races, sexual orientations, and religious (or non-religious) beliefs, while maintaining a strong separation of church and state. This would mean adequately funding our institutions and wisely investing in our infrastructure and walking away from failed trickle-down economic theories. It would mean seizing a market opportunity to redefine your party and it’s promise to new customers and many old customers alike. It would mean seizing the opportunity to become the party of “For Something” rather than just “Against everything.”
It will take some time to rebuild the trust with key stakeholders, and it will require aggressive competitive positioning against the Tea Party and those to the extreme right, such as Governor Rick Perry and most of the current statewide office holders and candidates. It can be done, though, and from the mainstream GOP perspective, it must be done. Otherwise, the disenfranchised mainstream Republican will break from the herd to seek other competitive solutions that may better meet their conservative needs and some of those may be (gasp!) left of where they are now.
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