It's Time for Republicans to Write a New Brand Brief

Marketing Tactics Didn't Sink the Party, Its Positions Did

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If we're to believe most of the Monday-morning quarterbacking on the election, the campaign was lost because of marketing: Obama went ugly early; Romney didn't woo Latinos or women; Obama is a demagogue; Hurricane Sandy stunted Romney's momentum; and, oh yeah, Obama is a skillful liar.

If these folks were CMOs like you, or simply worked for a consumer packaged-goods brand ... let's say, Frosted Flakes ... they'd get fired for giving those answers, and then physically thrown out of the boardroom.

Now, before you rip me a new one because you're offended, take a breath. I'm writing as a marketer, not a political person, and I know there are an endless number of explanations for why the loss wasn't really such a loss after all. But it was still a loss, and I find blaming marketing just too unsatisfying in a the-dog-ate-my-homework sort of way. We can slice and dice tactics until we're blue in the face (pun intended), but what if the party's positions and plans were the ultimate cause for Gov. Romney's failure?

It's not as if that hasn't happened before in our commercial world. I was at Babson College last week talking to some really smart people, and Theodore Levitt's seminal 1960 HBR essay entitled "Marketing Myopia" came up in conversation. Levitt was the first to label a common cause of failed marketing, which is when brands focus on selling products instead of meeting consumer needs. I think Levitt's insight is directly relevant to the Republicans' plight.

Just think if those Frosted Flakes brand gurus felt that the problem with selling their cereal to diabetics was one of semantics, not sugar, or that customers' inability to afford boxes of the stuff was simply the free market in action. What if the company did things to limit who could hope to buy its products, or found ways to punish customers who didn't. How about if it envisioned a radically new idea of what breakfast meant entirely, including where, when and by whom it would be eaten (and claimed it was the only way breakfast could survive as an institution), only there were other solutions to changing breakfast, and everybody knew about them.

Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, his wife Ann Romney, and his running mate Paul Ryan with his wife Janna Ryan wave to the crowd following Romney's concession speech during an election rally in Bo
Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, his wife Ann Romney, and his running mate Paul Ryan with his wife Janna Ryan wave to the crowd following Romney's concession speech during an election rally in Bo Credit: Bloomberg

The Frosted Flakes people could devise the most brilliant and effective marketing campaign to spin these positions, but I don't believe people would buy their products. Blaming marketing for that failure would amount to little more than shooting the messenger.

Great marketing starts with great products, and there's no reason why the Republican Party can't apply its principles of self-determination, limited government and meaningful opportunity to policies that truly benefit all Americans. That's where the strategy moving forward needs to go: With a new brand brief that offers innovative positions and plans that don't have to be spun, mislabeled or hidden because they're unpalatable to the people from whom they want votes.

Before they get too far with it, they should also probably delete all the references to individuals and groups as the causes of what ails our nation. Throughout the campaign we were told that there's not a problem in America that can't be pinned to some interest group who are either getting an undeserved great deal, or purposefully pulling one over the rest of us. Imagine if those Frosted Flakes marketers continually blamed the Cheerios people for sabotaging their work, or attributed competitors' sales successes to evil manipulation.

You can't participate in a public debate if you've already determined that your opponent is a liar, the system is rigged, the media aren't fair, and you're going to ignore the outcome anyway. If you're convinced so many people are against you, it makes it that much harder to recruit new people to be with you, no matter how much the permanent siege mentality makes the die-hards feel wanted. This is true for cereal and politics.

It's time for a new Republican brand brief, after which they can go hire the marketers who'll expertly help translate those positions and plans into compelling communications content. The first step is to stop blaming marketers for the recent failure, though, and create a brief that keeps them from relying on marketing wizardry to magically stand in for positions and plans in 2014.

Buying a big mirror might help, too.

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