I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Tuesday will not be a good day for Democrats. The reason isn’t Ebola or the Islamic State or that the country has suddenly become more conservative. It’s not because of Fox News or all the outside money that is being spent. What we have here is a failure of brand management — in this case, the Democratic brand.
Branding is the big buzzword in business. In its weak form, branding is merely the marketing veneer, the new name or logo or advertising tagline. But in its strong and more meaningful form, according to Allen Adamson, head of North American operations of Landor Associates, a brand is more than what you do or say but who you are and what values you stand for. It’s the “single, sticky idea” that you are constantly communicating internally and externally, informing and guiding every aspect of a company’s operations and strategy.
“Building a brand is telling a clear, credible and compelling story about what you’ve done and what you are going to do,” explains David Srere, chief strategy officer at Siegel + Gale, another leading brand consultancy. “It says that come hell or high water, this is what we are going to be about.” It’s the simple, enduring idea that cuts through the escalating noise in the marketplace, overcomes the rampant cynicism among consumers and allows companies to recover from the inevitable bad luck of missteps.
What’s true for companies also applies to political parties. And from that standpoint, the performance of the Obama White House and his party’s congressional candidates has largely been a case study in how to destroy brand equity: Democratic candidates begging the Democratic president not to campaign for them and, in one memorable instance, refusing even to say whether she voted for him. The president and candidates rarely mentioning, let alone defending, their landmark health reform legislation. Party leaders pleading with the president not to take executive actions on immigration or climate change before the election. A Democratic Senate willing to put off action on urgent or popular issues out of fear that Republicans will force tough votes on controversial amendments.
Now, on the eve of the election, Democratic candidates find themselves caught in a vicious cycle in which their refusal to embrace and defend their party’s brand is discouraging the faithful and turning away the undecided, threatening their election prospects still further. What Benjamin Franklin said of revolutions also applies to political campaigns: Those who don’t hang together will surely hang separately.
At a time when outside money, media consolidation and political polarization are all conspiring to nationalize local races, party brands are more important than ever. As Hilton and General Motors and even Procter & Gamble have discovered — and Apple has always known — having a strong “master brand” makes it easier and cheaper to succeed with individual products; a weak one drags down the entire portfolio of products. Similarly, in politics, a candidate who embraces and contributes to a strong national party brand already has the foundation for a successful campaign, able to focus limited resources on highlighting her individual qualities and achievements or the weaknesses of her opponent.
As with many businesses, the Democrats’ branding problem starts with a misunderstanding and misuse of public opinion polls.
“To say that there is an over-reliance on research is a gross understatement,” laments Srere at Siegel + Gale. “It’s asking people to tell you things they can’t possibly tell you. As Henry Ford put it, if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have told him they wanted a faster horse.”
Voters, like consumers, are fickle, their opinions fluid and susceptible to new information and experiences. They don’t really know what their priorities are. They often act on emotion, not rational calculation. And in the end, they often vote on the character that candidates reveal in dealing with an issue rather than whether they fully agree with a candidate’s position. Given that reality, polls that tell you that voters are most concerned about the economy (when aren’t they?), have an unfavorable opinion of the president they just re-elected and are opposed to a health-care law they don’t begin to understand — that’s hardly research that can provide the basis for a successful campaign strategy.
The other fallacy the Democrats have bought into is that the only way to win elections is to viciously attack your opponents while avoiding doing or saying anything that would allow them to attack you. The reality is that there has always been negative campaigning and always will be. But the surest way to win elections is to have a strong enough positive message to offset it. In other words, a strong brand.
For Democrats, that message, repeated day after day by candidate after candidate, might go something like this:
“I’m a Democrat. In economic terms, that means I believe we need an active, competent government to ensure that prosperity is broadly shared by protecting ordinary people from the occasional excesses of markets and the undue power of businesses. That’s why Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, closing down corporate tax scams, putting tighter regulation on Wall Street and providing adequate funding for a world-class public education system from pre-K through college. And it’s why we are proud to have passed legislation to ensure that all Americans finally have a basic health insurance plan regardless of income or health or which company they work for. With oil and gas prices falling, it means I’m even willing to raise energy taxes by a few pennies per gallon so we can reinvest in the infrastructure — highways, ports, airports, subway systems, the electric grid, the Internet — on which all of us and the economy depend. Republicans are uninterested in, or unwilling to do, any of these things or in making any of these investments. Are you with them, or are you with us Democrats?”