Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Brand Has Been Destroyed

American Thinker:

“Shake it off.” That old coach’s nugget seems to be most Republicans’ response to the recent devastating election results. The message of many is that it was a unique situation, a massive one-time blow that has left the party with a mild concussion, but from which we can recover quickly.

We’ll have to endure two years of sectarian violence in Congress, will likely lose out on a conservative Supreme Court nominee or two, and will be up to our elbows in investigations and made-to-veto stunt legislation, but by 2008 the special circumstances that killed us in 2006 will be changed – and life can return to normal, with the GOP winning elections nearly by default. So goes the hopeful chant.

However, that is just wrong. The shock the GOP felt was not a lucky blow by Democrats, or a stumble caused by chance. It was the door hitting us on the way out of many voters’ trust. Before the election was even over and the votes fully counted, lots of experts offered opinions and theories on why the GOP lost so badly, but not a single one of them holds up.


For every issue, glaring contradictions can be found. The only workable explanation is that voters were voting against Republicans precisely because they were Republicans.

This theory also explains how some Democrats, virtually unknown even in the districts in which they were running, won a majority of votes (Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire comes to mind). These candidates were the human equivalent of the pollsters’ “generic ballot” – and they won. It’s striking also that the defeats for the GOP went well down the ballot. How does anyone expect to affect the war in Iraq or illegal immigration or even corruption in Washington by electing a new county representative to the state legislature or a new councilor to the town board?

The GOP, it appears, has spoiled its reputation, or as it’s known in business, their “franchise” or “brand.” The little “R” after candidates’ names is today seen as a net negative by many voters who just two years ago saw it as a mild indicator of quality. This is the worst possible turn of events a party can face – and one that could do damage for years to come.

Although elections are often portrayed as contests of ideas, or battles between individual candidates, these simplifications are only partially true. There are a lot of candidates, and a lot of claims, and too many offices and issues for most people to follow closely. So many voters do what consumers everywhere do: when in doubt, they go with the brand they trust most. Features and price (or ideas and candidates) have to compete against that prejudice.

I could buy a Dodge or a Toyota. The Dodge is cheaper, and it looks better. But I’ll probably buy the Toyota, because (having owned both) I don’t trust Dodge. It would take a helluva Dodge salesman or a huge price difference to overcome that lack of trust. That’s the power of a brand of good reputation – it removes lots of doubt at decision time.Ten dollar bargain bin sneakers are a suspect purchase. Ten dollar name brand sneakers are viewed as a no brainer, as long as they aren’t counterfeit.

It appears that “Republican” has now become a suspect brand, just as Dodge or Ford or GM are to many car buyers. Republicans cannot, therefore, expect things to simply revert to being in their favor in the next election cycle, any more than Dodge can hope to have Toyota owners suddenly stop buying Toyotas and switch to Dodge without some powerful new evidence.

Either the Democrats will have to re-tarnish their newly forgiven brand massively in the next two years, or the GOP will need to take extraordinary steps to overcome the philosophical inertia that burdens their brand in many voters’ minds. It will not be enough for the GOP to merely go and sin no more. Changing a reputation (for the worse or better) requires one to make a huge swing outside expectations for a sustained period. Stereotypes are stubborn things.

So what harmed the GOP brand? A deadly cocktail of stupid, atypical decisions. It was everything that the GOP did that surprised voters negatively – and sustained that ill surprise long enough to overcome the inertia of the old (good) brand reputation.

And it must be noted that you can only ruin a brand’s reputation with those who believe in it to some degree. Those who already hate your brand are not going to punish you for changing. So the GOP’s woes can be traced entirely to how the image of the brand has been changed for those who were previously somewhat loyal to the brand (independents and moderates) or very loyal to the brand (conservatives).

The brand-killing actions include violating the expectations of:

1) Fiscal conservatism.


2) Security competence.


3) Law and order, including immigration law, and border order.


4) Honesty.


5) The common touch and an ability to connect.


These weighty violations of established expectations have sunk the brand.


The voters who abandoned the GOP have not abandoned their beliefs, and could quickly be won back from their uncomfortable trial separation from the party – if given reasons to return. Failure to address vigorously the five basic betrayals that drove them away, however, will allow the current poisoned brand reputation to set permanently. The result will be an end of GOP ascendancy for a decade or more.

The GOP is going to have to come up with something twice as good as the Contract For America, and actually deliver on it in order to get power back, and to hold it. They shafted us once, already. The brand is dead, and mere tinkering isn't going to fix it. No one is going to put in the time, money, and effort to support the GOP if the expected end result is precisely nothing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The GOP has fooled us more than once, actually. They run as social conservatives during the desperate times. In order to win elections at present, we are told, the Republican party must maintain the awkward alliance of social conservatives and economic conservatives. When the fat times come, the economic conservatives (who are becoming ever more socially liberal), demand their due for having tolerated the "religious wackos" for so long. That payback to the economic conservatives (cheap liberals, to use a Savagism) demoralizes the social conservatives who then flee, the Republicans lose the next round of elections, and the Republican politicians become (apparently) contrite coutiers of the of the social and religious conservatives once again--at least long enough to win an election or two. Americans are tired of the pattern. Two lessons scream for Republican attention and acceptance: (1) No one likes to be played as the fool, and (2) Nothing is ever gained in courting the left. The left, and their milder minions, the liberals, do not love you and never will love you. If economic conservatives cannot make a buck in a nation built on wholesome principles and values, then they do not deserve to prosper. Any prosperity, no matter how red hot, gained from a sick society, is nothing other than the profit derived from a grand junkyard salvage operation. The profits derived from a wholesome society are limitless and limitless because these profits are generated from an underlying, organic process of vitality and growth.