by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

(note: this is part 1 in this week's 5-part series on the brandification of our lives. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a political Independent).

The Republican Party is going to try to "rebrand" itself this year.

"It's not that the party's going to change, it's what we talk about and how we talk about it," explained House Minority Leader John Boehner last week.

"You look at the Republican brand name being where it is, let's be frank about it. Iraq has been very unpopular, right? It's associated with Republicans. The president's job approval is somewhere down around 30. Those are the two big issues that hurt the brand."

As a marketer, I find this language very interesting. 

Boehner is drawing a clear distinction between what his party has done, and what he wants voters to think about it. This evidences a concept of ‘brand’ as a variable that's somehow independent of reality. And he assigns public reaction to the former in terms of how the latter has communicated it.

Either he's onto something, or he's a complete idiot.

The idea of politics as a branding business is nothing new, of course. The Democrats regularly use the same perspective in defining their work: both parties would make Orwell proud with their equal-opportunity dictionary abuse in order to say one thing, but do another:

  • Oil drilling and nuclear power programs are housed in environmental protection bills
  • Handouts to special interests get buried in legislation to encourage work or fairness
  • Reform is a word defined solely by whomever chooses to use it, for whatever purpose

All over the world, tradition has it that parliaments and other legislative bodies should busy themselves with bold, easily-grasped themes in order to marshal the popular will. Kings and queens have been beheaded for what they stood for more than who they were. Dictators have threatened the life of the world with it.

In fact, both major parties in the UK are busy rebranding themselves, especially the Conservatives, who are seeking to be considered the party of change.

But is any of this branding?

We business types expect certain qualities from brands: consistency, implicit value, uniqueness. We do branding in hopes of establishing things of lasting value, though it's becoming ever-harder to do so. 

So isn't there something disingenuous, at best, and cruelly manipulative, at worst, when politicians choose to detach the reality of what they do from the imagined descriptions of what they say? Or that they might think that just changing the branding communications will change how people see the brand?

Sure, it might work in the short-term, just like a product marketer could claim a faux benefit that prompts a purchase. People won’t buy that product again, though, unless there's yet another promise made. This approach isn't long-term branding; it's exploitation, and there are laws in commerce to prohibit it.

In our personal lives, we call it lying.

Perhaps Boehner's problem isn’t that voters misunderstand the Republican brand, but that they have an all-too clear understanding of it. Iraq, gas prices, and the other issues that have emerged under a two-term Republican President -- with an angry, activist party behind him most of the time -- don’t affect the brand as much as they are the brand.

To suggest that the solution is to talk differently appears misguided, whether in commerce or in politics.

I don't know how you change your brand without first changing your reality.

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