Rebranding The GOP: Can A Marketing Facelift Overhaul The Republican Party?

According to polls, the GOP is seen as outside the mainstream, for the wealthy, out-of-touch, uncompromising, and uncaring. To win more voters, it’s clear the brand needs a makeover. Here's how we'd do it.

The political pundits' view on the Republican party lately is that it desperately needs to "rebrand" itself. While numerous political writers have explained why the party needs to do this, so far none have actually looked at the rebranding problem as a business would and offered concrete recommendations on the rebranding implementation. My goal is to remedy that here by offering an analysis of and recommendations for the GOP brand, starting with what the brand should stand for and then getting down into the specifics (e.g., logo, tagline, advertising) that flow from that positioning. I'll do this not from a personal belief standpoint but from the perspective of a brand strategist.

The State of the Republican Brand

A brand achieving 48% market share is usually doing quite well and in the business world would typically be viewed as being very healthy. However, in the political world, it doesn’t work that way. Any brand achieving less than 51% market share in a two-way race is a bad thing. And defeat, especially in two consecutive presidential elections, means it’s a good time to do a "brand audit," reassessing that political brand’s position and messaging in the minds of its target market, voters.

In that brand audit, a smart brand manager, whether running a business brand or a political one, would look at every component of the brand to see what is and is not working. Questions to be asked include "How do voters perceive the party?" "What does the party stand for?" "How does the party’s name and logo either support or detract from the brand?" With that information in hand, the brand manager can either keep things mostly as is, do a minor update of the brand, or execute a major overhaul. That’s the process I will follow here.

For this audit let's start with the GOP brand’s perceptions and how it performs among different segments. Based on data from a December 2012 CNN/ORC International poll, a December 2012 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and an election day CNN exit poll it’s clear that the Republican brand is perceived by significant (and growing) segments of the electorate as:

•"Older," "outdated," and "out-of-touch" with the changes going on in America.
•Economically as "for the wealthy" and "not for the people."
•Politically as "too extreme" and "uncompromising."
•Emotionally as "not caring for people."

Turning to who "bought" the Republican brand in the last presidential election (per Gallup) you find the Republican party did well among men, whites, the religious, married people, those making $35K and over and the 65 and older segment. However, many of these segments (whites, married, religious) are becoming a relatively smaller portion of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ brand, while it has issues, is viewed more positively, is more appealing to growing segments of the voter population, and is seen as more inclusive, especially for the less-fortunate.

In the last presidential election, the Democratic Party did well with more of the growing voting segments (women, young voters, minorities, and those not married) that are becoming a larger portion of the electorate.

The challenge for any brand that is reinventing itself is to gain new customers without losing those loyal to the brand. This is tough given that those that have stayed longest with the brand have the greatest emotional attachment to it and are loath to see it change. The GOP faces this same challenge; namely, how does it keep conservative voters (many of whom want the party to be more conservative) while reaching out to moderates? But to reach these swing voters it needs to "moderate" its image and be seen as more reasonable and inclusive, all while keeping its base. So let’s look at how this circle can be squared.

1. Determine what the (new) brand stands for.

A Republican rebranding starts with a new brand promise. Right now, as its political and thought leaders debate about the party’s future direction, it’s obvious the party does not yet know what it stands for. And even if it did it has no tagline that expresses clearly what the GOP offers to voters.

To develop a strong brand promise, I looked at the history of the party, what I interpret as its core message, and what I believe would work going forward. From that analysis, I propose the GOP brand promise should be "Opportunity for All." The rationale for "Opportunity" is that America is known as "the land of opportunity." It’s what virtually all Americans want, the opportunity to live the "American Dream." It’s also something that leading Republican politicians like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan have been talking about lately. It’s a positive and emotional message. An obvious reason that "for All" makes sense is that the GOP needs to be inclusive to gain more voters.

This promise would then get implemented in two ways.

• At the national level, the Republican Party would advance ideas to promote "Opportunity for All." These include investment in educational choice for children (especially less fortunate children), policies that promote the healthy development of children’s mind, body, and spirit, a fair and efficient tax system that encourages free enterprise and job growth, fair trade, common sense and well-researched regulations to protect people and the environment, repairing our safety net for the long term, a welfare policy that protects the disadvantaged but discourages dependency, fair immigration policies that promote economic growth, and a strong defense.

You may ask, "Why the focus on children? Isn’t the main issue for voters the economy? And aren’t there a lot of voters who do not have children?" The answer to the last two questions is "Yes, but…" Yes, the economy is logically the main issue but the emotional reason many people want a job is so they can provide better lives for their children.

• On social issues the GOP would promote Federalism—allowing states to experiment with solutions that best solve their problems and decide for themselves the social policies that best fit the needs and beliefs of their citizens. This would take these issues off the national stage and eliminate a big "inhibitor to purchase" by a number of voters.

2. Fix the brand personality.

In the distant past, Ronald Reagan was able to portray the GOP message positively and optimistically for all Americans and explain his policies in a reasonable and common sense manner. However, in recent years this ability has been lost and the Republican Party tone is often viewed as extreme and angry. Therefore, the new brand promise would be accompanied by a brand personality that is more reasonable, optimistic, and welcoming, and less extreme and scolding.

3. Politicians must fit the brand promise.

The brand promise must drive not only the marketing but also form the basis for the party’s positions and policies and the selection of its candidates. Politicians must be found who can represent the new brand promise and communicate its messages. This means politicians must be recruited who are not only ideologically aligned but also exemplify and support the brand promise. By exemplify, I mean people that come from all walks of America and represent all ethnicities and both genders.

The party also needs to ensure all its politicians are media-savvy. Candidates must understand the brand promise and messaging as well as be able to speak about it intelligently and passionately. They must be comfortable going to groups outside the base to carry the message. And in today’s media environment, they need to be telegenic and able to handle tough "gotcha" questions that will inevitably come their way. The old adage, "All politics are local" is not true in the digital age. As Mitt Romney found out when two Senate candidates mishandled the topic of abortion, "All politics are now national."

The only way this approach can be implemented is with a top GOP official playing the role of brand steward and exercising a level of control that is not happening today. Successful brands define what they stand for and the experience they want consumers to have with the brand. They then develop the means to ensure that the brand experience desired actually takes place by providing brand guidelines, hiring employees that can make the brand experience come alive, and policing the brand.

In recruiting candidates, the GOP must ensure:

• A selection process that seeks out candidates that meet the criteria above and then uses the primary system to determine the winner. Ideology must play a role (and may vary a bit state to state) but as important as political philosophy is being a good "brand ambassador."
• That all party politicians have media training. Again, today all politics are national and the party cannot afford to have one or two candidates take it way off message. Training needs to also test candidates on how well they can answer tough questions. If they can’t, they should not receive party support.
• That Republican primary debates portray the party in a positive light. This means taking more control over the process and players in a way not being done today.

4. Get the names right.

Since it would erase the brand recognition built over the years, changing a brand’s name should only be done in dire situations. While it has problems, the party is not in a death spiral, and so the name "Republican" Party need not be dropped.

However, the nickname "Grand Old Party," given to the party back in 1888, needs to be revisited. "Grand" is a word no one still alive uses today unless they are referring to a type of piano and "Old" is a negative perception the party needs to move away from. It’s time to either drop the nickname or replace it. Since the acronym "GOP" is used by the party as its site address and, by itself, has no inherent negative attributes, one option to explore is to change what the acronym stands for.

Energy giant BP did this when it changed what "BP" stood for from "British Petroleum" to "Beyond Petroleum" to signify their move into alternative energy sources. The party could do the same, perhaps changing the "GOP" acronym meaning from "Grand Old Party" to a more positive "Growth and Opportunity Party" that fits with the proposed brand promise. This is something it appears some leaders in the party are already exploring.

5. Have a powerful logo and tagline.
While the elephant logo is recognizable and strongly associated with the party, frankly, it really brings nothing positive to the table. The elephant logo dates back to an 1874 cartoon that portrayed the Republican vote as an elephant and the image stuck. However, elephants don’t have a lot of positive attributes that transfer to politics and the logo gives no indication of what the party stands for.

In contrast, the Democrats’ logo used to be the donkey, but the party moved to a new logo and tag line in 2010. While it lacks emotional power, at least it was an attempt to update the logo and introduce a tagline.

Given this state of affairs, a new logo and tagline should be implemented as part of the rebranding. Again, they must reflect the new brand promise.

I learned long ago that logo design is best left to design experts at agencies. That said, I want to offer two simple designs just to stimulate conversation.

Two options with a political logo are either to devise a brand new one with emotional punch or leverage an existing iconic image that conveys the promise in a powerful way. The ACLU did the latter by using the Statue of Liberty in their updated logo, as you can see here on the upper left of their homepage.

As Sylvia Harris, the logo’s designer stated, "We wanted to help the ACLU look like the guardians of freedom." So one approach the GOP could use would be to leverage an iconic American image. Given his popularity and history within the party, images invoking Lincoln would still resonate today. Here is one logo approach that does that, using the "Opportunity for All" tagline.

The other approach, starting afresh (below), illustrates how "GOP" could subtly redefined around "growth" and "opportunity" using this logo.

6. Figure out the words to use (and lose).
The words a brand uses (and doesn’t use) really define what it’s about. Looking at a "word cloud" from The New York Times that tracked the words most often used in speeches at the Republican convention we can learn some interesting things. We can see that most used Republican words (besides "Romney" and "Obama") were work, business, jobs, families, leadership, better, success, economy, God, and tax. We can see that the main focus was on the economy, with an emphasis on supporting businesses as the way to move forward. More importantly, most of the words Republicans used lacked emotional content (with exceptions such as "families," "success," and "God").

Reviewing the Democratic convention word cloud we see the top 10 words (again, excluding candidate names) were work, women, jobs, families, economy, health, forward, together, middle class, and values. The Democrats focused less on the economy and more on talking about key segments ("women" and "middle class") in an emotional way and inclusive way ("families," "health," "forward," "together," and "values"). The Democrats were effective by having a more emotional message targeted at major voting blocs than the GOP.

Probably the best way to illustrate the words the GOP should use going forward is by providing a proposed future Republican word cloud.

A few things about the word cloud to notice;
• It supports the brand promise and tagline
• The biggest words are emotional ones
• Policies are still there but are used to support the emotional points and appear less frequently

7. Do some great advertising—now.

There are four advertising recommendations I would make relative to rebranding of the GOP. First, create a "brand manifesto" based on the brand promise that powerfully and succinctly states what the Republican brand is all about. Then, make that come to life with a video that ad agencies typically call an "anthem." Use those as the base for an ongoing marketing campaign (starting now) to move the brand into the consideration set of moderates and important voting segments. And include within the campaign a component of "cause marketing."

To make a brand promise come to life brands often create what they call a brand manifesto that states in an emotional way what the brand stands for. Then they develop a short anthem video (roughly five minutes) that powerfully captures it as well. Here is an ad Nike put together that has the elements of a brand manifesto. Nike then builds on that with anthem-type ads that capture the spirit of the manifesto, such as the "Find Your Greatness–Jogger" ad.

Based on the brand positioning, below is what a potential Republican brand manifesto might look like, off which a brand anthem might be created (given the history of the word manifesto, it might be better to call this a declaration of beliefs):

What Republicans Believe
We believe in making America the land of opportunity for all Americans. Every American, and especially every child, should have the opportunity to live their life to the fullest, enjoy the liberties that are the birthright of every American, and pursue their own idea of happiness.

We believe every child deserves the opportunity of having the best education in the world. We believe every young person deserves the opportunity to get a great job.

We believe entrepreneurs deserve to have their risk-taking and hard work pay off. We believe America’s companies need an environment that enables them to be the most successful in the world. We believe free markets and individuals are best at creating and distributing wealth.

We believe we need a social safety net that protects those truly needy and allows seniors security later in life but does not encourage dependency or leave an unaffordable burden on future generations.

We believe in a fair immigration policy that welcomes people who will work hard, invent new things, make new discoveries, build new companies, and create more opportunities for all Americans.

We believe that government should focus on those things that only governments can do. And we believe that all decisions about how Americans live need not be made in Washington, D.C. but the majority of those decisions should be made by the people in their own towns, cities, counties, and states, allowing each community to live in a way that best suits its own uniqueness.

We believe individuals, charities, religious organizations and companies all can help create a better America.

We believe America can still be a shining city on a hill. We believe the American Dream can still be a reality. We believe all Americans have a right to a fair shot. We believe in OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL.

Having a brand manifesto and anthem are jobs #1 and #2. The third component of the advertising approach would be an ongoing advertising campaign starting now, in 2013. Since midterm elections won’t begin in earnest until 2014 and the presidential campaign until late 2015 you may ask, "Why start now?" The reason goes back to the negative perceptions of the Republican brand. If the GOP waits until election time to start advertising it will be too late. It takes time to change perceptions and get voters to consider and eventually support you. Therefore, a continuous ad campaign built to communicate the "Opportunity for All" promise must start now.

The goal would be not to get people to vote for a specific candidate but to consider the Republican party as offering a viable approach to making their lives better. Therefore, the ad campaign needs to be built so it addresses voters in key segments (women, minorities, and youth) in a way that makes "opportunity for all" come to life. It must address their issues, offer Republican-based solutions that make sense to them, and be emotionally powerful (for example, school choice for the children of minorities and single women). Preferably, for authenticity, it would feature real-life people that mirror the voters being targeted. Of course, it follows that, to reach these voters, the campaign must utilize media channels these segments use.

The fourth element of the ad approach would be "cause" marketing, perhaps built around something called "The Republican Foundation." This would be a foundation that supports five to 10 charities yearly that exemplify the promise of "Opportunity for All." This has the added benefit of aligning with the GOP’s philosophy of the importance of charities in making the lives of Americans better.

The Foundation would be funded by the Republican party and be part of a yearly fund drive run by the party (a side benefit here would be that this would also a good way to stay in touch with and activate the base). After raising the money, the GOP would make the charities and their work part of the overall advertising campaign; ensuring people know the good works of the party and reinforcing the GOP brand promise.

The Path Forward
It’s clear from the data that for the Republican brand to be relevant to more Americans it needs not just a minor makeover but a major rebranding effort. This would include everything from determining what the party stands for to its logo and tagline, from its basic beliefs to its policies and marketing campaign. For all of these areas I have offered recommendations from the perspective of a brand strategist. I’m sure some of my proposed ideas can be improved, others may not be feasible, and a few may just be plain wrong. But it’s a holistic framework, analysis, and proposal from which to have the conversation about the Republican brand.

Got ideas for rebranding the GOP? Tell us about it in the comments.

—Mark McNeilly is a lecturer at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he teaches branding. He is a former marketing executive whose 30-year career at IBM and Lenovo was primarily spent in branding and marketing. He is the author of three books with Oxford University Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @markmcneilly.

[Image: Flickr user Jonathan]

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