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What Republicans Don't Understand About Rebranding

Getty/Justin Sullivan

On Monday morning, after a four-month listening tour and a thousand op-eds about What Went Wrong, the Republican National Committee rendered its verdict: The GOP has an image problem. People see it as a stuffy old club of rich white people, one that’s out of touch with the lives of most Americans. "I think our policies are sound, but I think the way we communicate them can be a real problem," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus this week, after presenting his 219-point “Growth and Opportunity Project” at the National Press Club. "It's a welcoming attitude that we need."

These days, much of the business world is about brand—that certain aura that surrounds a product, separating it from the rest. Like Apple, or Coca-Cola. We trust brands, identify with them, evangelize them both consciously and not. But this language has seeped into other arenas of American culture, from music to politics, such that artists and politicians are themselves brands—something to be marketed, like a product. And the consensus, since last year’s elections, has been that the entire Republican brand is in the gutter. Even Priebus admitted as much on Sunday, saying the party has “done a really lousy job of branding and marketing who we are."

The implication, of course, is that the party is one successful rebranding away from reversing its fortunes. But the problem, brand strategists say, is that even the most brilliant marketing campaign won't accomplish much if it’s pushing a product that people don’t want. "If you're trying to deliver a new brand, you have to actually deliver something new, which requires drafting policies that represent this new brand that you're coming out with," says Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. "The messaging is second."

Take Domino's Pizza, for example, which overhauled its entire recipe in response to terrible consumer reviews—and talked all about it. House Republicans reportedly invited the pizza chain's CEO to their two-day retreat, to learn from his experience in reviving the Domino’s brand.1 By insisting there's nothing wrong with the GOP's current offerings, it seems Priebus didn't quite take the most important part of Domino’s turnaround to heart: the new recipe. After all, the history of marketing is full of brands that failed to live up to advertising hype, like Oldsmobile, which even the catchiest jingles couldn't save.

There's another problem: The RNC probably isn't well positioned to rebrand the party anyway. There's another three and a half years before the GOP is due to issue its main substantive policy document—the party platform—which average citizens don't read anyway. In the meantime, they would need a fresh face to sell their new message. As much as the Democrats out-campaigned Republicans in 2008 and 2012 with their digital operation, they’ve also had a powerful spokesperson to sell their message: Barack Obama.

The GOP has no such salesman.

"I think what the Republicans need is a Bill Clinton," says David Rogers, who also teaches digital strategy at Columbia Business School. "They need a product, a third-way candidate who is going to be able to stand up and on a few points challenge not just the establishment, but parts of the core base of the Republican Party, and capture the support of the people on the edge … not just by moderating or being a little vague, but being willing in a couple areas to stand up to orthodoxy. So people can say ‘okay, this is a different kind of Republican.’"  

Until that kind of person emerges, GOP leaders could at least focus on getting everyone to sing the same tune. If you can find a few things everyone agrees on, that provides some sense of cohesion, allowing a political brand to break through the noise. Brendan Daly, a former spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi who's now an executive vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations, helped construct the "New Direction" platform for the Democrats in 2006. "Members talked about it, governors talked about it," Daly remembers. "You agree on a strategy and you do it."

Instead, the RNC's report talks a lot about recruiting "surrogates": Non-white, non-male organizers who can go preach the Republican gospel to women and people of color. But they're bound to fail if they don't have something to offer. For example, Daly says about Hispanic outreach, "If their message is they're not for a path to citizenship, the surrogates won't do any good.”

To really solidify a brand, party members can't be the only ones promoting it. It's got to be validated by the political equivalent of reviewers and critics—commentators, academics, journalists, and other figures consumers trust. "They're only going to change the minds of those who've steered away from them if they get people outside the loyal party itself saying we see the Republican Party as changing," says Quint.

The RNC's report was harshly critical of the party, but its proposed solutions were mostly mechanistic—better data gathering, fewer primary debates, more field staff. The harder part is coming up with a set of proposals to form the core of a new brand. That’s especially difficult, from a product differentiation standpoint, when the usual answer is that they should become more like Democrats—comprehensive immigration reform, equal rights for gay people, reasonable gun control, and so on.

Too bad. If they don't figure it out, as politicos like to say, they're just putting lipstick on a pig.

  1. Domino’s did it by adding 40 percent more cheese, with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s in-house marketing agency for the dairy industry.