GOP Branding Blunders

In his book Focus, world-renowned marketing strategist Al Ries remarked, "In the long run, winning companies are ones that are the most focused." This marketing guru's counsel stands in stark contrast to the political advice recently offered by Elliot Schimel in American Thinker.

Mr. Schimel is just one of the many voices arguing for the GOP to ignore the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et al and continue implementing one of the classic product marketing blunders: overextension and subsequent dilution of the brand.  

These advocates make their strategy sound extremely viable. They use power-phrases like "big tent," "appealing to independents," "inclusion," and "coalition building" to articulate what appears to be a highly appealing and logical strategy. Who doesn't want to expand the base, get more people to vote Republican, and win more elections? Isn't that the whole point of the political game?

While much focus of late has been on N.Y. District 23, the GOP's misguided brand-extension strategy has been in play for several years now. John McCain's presidential campaign was the perfect illustration. By the numbers, the McCain camp and the GOP spent in excess of $120 million to get a man elected who wouldn't even use the GOP logo on his campaign material. McCain chose instead to use a star, which was supposed to symbolize his maverick status.

The McCain "maverick" campaign strategy came with a significant unintended consequence: in an attempt to appeal to "all those independents," the Republican Party actually expanded their tent to the point of collapse. The "big-tent" strategy pushed voters to ask themselves a simple question: "If both candidates look like a Democrat philosophically, why not vote for the candidate who's at least willing to call him- or herself a Democrat? At least I know where he really stands, and I won't be surprised or disappointed."

Now before we point a finger too quickly at our big-tent friends in the GOP, we should remember that Republicans aren't the only ones to fall prey to the siren song of brand overextension. Anyone remember "New Coke"? If you don't, there's a reason.  If you do, you'll recall the launch of New Coke as Coca-Cola's attempt to reinvent itself in the mid-'80s. Not surprisingly, after some initial acceptance, New Coke bombed spectacularly.

Procter & Gamble, one of the best branding companies in the world, refers to this kind of consumer backlash as not delivering at the first and second "moments of truth." The "first moment of truth" is when the buyer (or voter in this case) makes the decision to purchase (vote for) the product (candidate). The "second moment of truth" is when the consumer tries the product (looks at the candidate's voting record) and the consumer's experience either a) fits with what he was told he would get at the first moment of truth or b) fails to live up to his expectations, and dissatisfaction ensues.

In the "happy customer" scenario, brand-loyalty and trust are created. In the case of a "dissatisfied customer," confidence is destroyed, and the consumer (or voter) switches to the opponent's product even if the second product is inferior to the original.

Unfortunately, in the N.Y. District 23 race, it seems that some in the GOP leadership still suffer from big-tenters' blindness. Once again, all the GOP's spinning and lining up of endorsements like Newt Gingrich's failed to dupe Republican and Independent voters into believing that Ms. Scozzafava fit the GOP brand. So clear was the brand overextension that no one seemed surprised when Ms. Scozzafava, after dropping out of the race, promptly turned around and endorsed the Democratic candidate.

Ultimately, the decision of Ms. Scozzafava to drop out was a blessing in disguise for a party whose candidates and brand took a pounding from voters in 2006 and 2008. Had Ms. Scozzafava won the election, it would have further muddied the waters and diluted an already weak GOP brand.

Some of the big-tent experts may counter my argument by pointing to the success of the Democrats in using this big-tent strategy to take back control of both the Legislative and Executive branches of government. However, it remains to be seen if that strategy will be successful over the long run. 

Election results in Virginia and New Jersey seem to indicate that the big-tent strategy is starting to backfire on Democrats, thus providing a window of opportunity for the GOP to rebound and recapture a majority in Washington. In order to make this happen, however, the Republican Party needs to stop taking the advice of experts whose visions of big tent grandeur has been one of the key destroyers of both confidence in the GOP "product" and passion of the party base. 

Finally, rather than ignoring or marginalizing conservative talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, big-tent advocates, who continue to call for a more "middle-of-the-road" GOP strategy, ought to study why Beck and his peers have become so popular of late. From where I sit, it is Beck and company who are doing a far better job creating a focused brand than many GOP strategists, who continue chasing the "New Coke" mirage. 

Lyall J. Swim is a partner at Junto Communications, a Utah-based strategic communications firm specializing in public policy, issue advocacy, and political campaigns.
If you experience technical problems, please write to