The answer might simply be: It doesn't.
"The Republican Party doesn't need to rebrand; it needs to reconnect," said Vinny Minchillo, partner and senior creative director at Dallas-based Scott Howell & Co. Mr. Minchillo handled two key Republican races this season: Norm Coleman's in Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss' in Georgia. Mr. Coleman, though ahead of Democrat Al Franken, faces a recount. Mr. Chambliss is heading for a December runoff with opponent Jim Martin. Considering the fate of other Republicans this cycle, those outcomes are actually seen as good news.
"The party has to actively do what any good brand should do: Get back to basics and rally around its core values. In this case, lower taxes, smaller government and a strong defense," Mr. Minchillo said.
In a nutshell, conservatives maintain that's exactly what George W. Bush and some Congressional Republicans haven't done while in power. "They spent too much money," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "The president focused on the occupation of Iraq and appeared to be unable and uninterested in being able to focus on the United States. Bush did not manage the federal government to try to prune it back. It takes a lot of work by a president and an administration to prevent the government from growing out of control, and Bush didn't put the work into it."
In other words, the Republicans betrayed their own brand. Said Euro RSCG partner Tom Messner, who's worked for campaigns including George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan's Tuesday Team, "The GOP brand asserted by Reagan was not one of fluff and symbols.
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That's what the party needs to return to. It needs to find the core of that message. John McCain's team couldn't do it -- or wouldn't do it. During the primary, the Maverick almost bucked himself out of the top spot. During the general election, his team flailed about chasing news cycles and Barack Obama rather than staking out a clear, consistent brand proposition.
The party also needs to learn how to listen, said Mr. Minchillo. "While voters wanted to talk about kitchen-table issues like the economy and health care, the party stayed focused on D.C.-centric issues like taxes and national security. Important issues, to be sure, but not the issues voters wanted to talk about."
For some direction, party leaders might want to turn to the oft-derided House Republicans, the tattered remnants of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" and a new crop of anti-earmark pork-busters. They were among the few who stood athwart history and yelled "Stop!" during the passage of the bailout bill before getting steamrolled by one of the biggest rounds of corporate welfare the U.S. has ever seen.
Of course, one of the trickier parts of branding is to boil down a complex message -- especially one about economics, tax rates and deregulation -- into a tagline. Barack Obama had "Change" and "Yes We Can" (neither of which will be of much use in 2012). And the Republicans?
Mr. Norquist suggested a couple: "Politicians, leave us alone" and "Stop Washington's spending spree."
Those may seem fanciful now, but most Republicans figure a couple of years of Democratic rule might make their message relevant again.
The question then becomes, who's going to be the standard-bearer? No one seems to know what Sarah Palin's next move will be. Theories range from talk-show host to stay-at-home mom to 2012 contender.
For some, Ms. Palin represents the worst of the party. Northeastern conservatives represented by the likes of Peggy Noonan and David Brooks have painted her faction as overly religious and anti-intellectual. And while that wing of the party may lock in the South and some rural areas, shifting attitudes toward topics such as gay marriage and demographic trends leading toward an aging population that expects health care and Social Security may make it harder for that very wing to win centrist Republicans, much less swing voters.
That split isn't as bad as it seems, said Mr. Messner. "This is a far cry from when the GOP had a Rockefeller wing and a Goldwater wing, real ideological differences. Today, maybe there's a Giuliani-Schwarzenegger-Romney group that is Reagan minus some of the social-issue agenda. Palin/Huckabee are Reagan minus some of the economic liberty."
"The next Republican nominee and president [are] going to have to be a movement leader and party builder," said Mr. Norquist, who also pointed out that being an unsuccessful VP candidate does not make a person next in line.
Whatever Ms. Palin's decision, she'll have a fight ahead of her. As popular as she may have been, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are likely to return. And they'll be joined by newcomers such as Bobby Jindal. The Indian-American governor of Louisiana is the sort of fresh-faced, fiscally conservative, post-racial candidate party members hope for.
And Mr. Jindal just happens to be heading to Iowa this month to give the keynote speech at a conservative function.