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Toeing the party line is good for your brand

Professor Mark McNeilly says political brands (Republicans and Democrats) provide an interesting case study about involving consumers.

In today’s world, it’s a given that a brand not only belongs to its parent company but also to its consumers and the general public. We live in a world of brand co-creation, social media sharing and communities – so it’s an environment in which the consumer has a much stronger voice in the brand’s meaning and direction than ever before.

But how far should a brand go in involving consumers? While they are certainly in a unique position, political brands (Republicans and Democrats) provide an interesting case study.

The 2016 U.S. primary season has shown what can happen when political brands cede almost total control of their brand’s direction to the people. During presidential primaries, various candidates who stand for different positions within the party spectrum vie for votes to win their party’s nomination. The winner of the nomination sets the brand direction for the party for the election year and, if their candidate is elected president, for the next four to eight years.

There’s probably nothing more important in terms of the party’s brand image than selecting its nominee and brand champion. So how are the two parties faring this year?

On the Republican side, the GOP had so many candidates they had to have two levels of debates. The candidates represented views ranging from strongly libertarian to very socially conservative. More importantly, the Republican National Committee (RNC), which is responsible for setting the parameters of the primaries nationally, allowed Donald Trump in.

Anyone familiar with popular culture knows “The Donald” is more of a celebrity than a politician. He also has what is perhaps most kindly described as a polarizing personality. What is perhaps less well-known is that Trump has contributed to both the Democratic and Republican parties and holds many very liberal views that are far from the historically conservative platform of the GOP.

By now it is well known how Trump has turned the GOP race upside down, forcing many former front-runners from the race and creating a major rift in the party as some members are vehemently against him. The latter are, in fact, so anti-Trump they have created a #NeverTrump movement on social media to stop him from getting the nomination. The whole process brings to mind the late Ed Koch’s statement after he lost New York City’s primary race for mayor to David Dinkins: “The people have spoken … and they must be punished.”

Now, lest you only think this is only the GOP’s issue, the Democratic party has its own problems. Expectations of a coronation of Hillary Clinton have been strongly challenged as Bernie Sanders, a “Democratic Socialist,” has gotten a large segment of the party “feeling the Bern.” This push from the far-left has the party’s center-left leaders struggling to explain the difference between Democrats and Socialists, which they mostly do by avoiding the question.

The reason for their reluctance is the aversion most Americans have historically had to the word “socialist.” Democratic leaders – who have been successful in repositioning their movement as “progressive” instead of “liberal” (a less favorably viewed term) – don’t want to see all that hard work go down the tubes.

At this point it looks like Clinton will win the nomination and ensure that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has a trump card (pardon the pun) with its “super-delegates” – high-level party members and politicians who are not allocated by the primary process but can choose to support whichever candidate they want. All are almost certain to fall-in behind Clinton, thus assuring the Democratic “establishment” of their choice of candidate.

So what does this have to do with brands? This:

Can you imagine any responsible CMO using a similar process to set the positioning and direction for his or her company’s brand?

Imagine the CMO of The Coca-Cola Company going to the CEO and having the following dialogue:

CMO:  So here’s the idea. We have a bunch of celebrities get together on national TV and debate what Coke stands for. It would be great.

CEO:  So you’d hand-pick these people and ensure they were consistent with our brand image?

CMO:  No, we’d pretty much let in anybody that wants to do it.

CEO:  Hmmm. Sounds questionable. So I guess at a minimum you’d set the limits of how we could be positioned and give them our brand attributes, promise and personality we want them to agree to, yes?

CMO:  Not really. We’d let them make it whatever they want to make it. Could be totally different from what we’ve stood for the last 100-plus years. Sounds great, right?

CEO:  So at a minimum we would select the winner, correct?

CMO:  No! That’s the neat part. We’d have people vote.

CEO:  So only people that love Coke can vote?

CMO:  Oh no, everybody can vote – Coke drinkers, Pepsi drinkers and even people who don’t drink soda.

CEO (after a long silence):  Let me think about this and get back to you. Right now I’ve got to make a call.

CMO:  OK! (leaves the office)

CEO (picks up the phone and calls an executive recruiter):  Mary, hey there. Could you start an immediate search for a CMO? We need a new one ASAP.

In sum, corporate brand stewards can learn what not to do from their political brethren. The message for us is that while it’s good to have consumer involvement in our brand, there are indeed limits to this good thing. If we’re not careful, we risk losing control of our brand and never regaining it.