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Why Party Brand Matters

Both major parties have a product to sell, but neither is doing a good job selling it

People want to vote “for” someone or something, but what they get from the two major parties has more to do with why the other side is so bad, Winston writes. Above, balloons drop at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
People want to vote “for” someone or something, but what they get from the two major parties has more to do with why the other side is so bad, Winston writes. Above, balloons drop at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Why do some companies seem to make Barron’s and Fortune’s annual “Most admired” and “Most respected” lists year after year? Why are most of them iconic brands, whether it’s newer tech giants Apple and Alphabet or generational companies like Johnson & Johnson and Walt Disney?

Successful companies build their brand based on three key fundamentals: innovative products that meet people’s needs, strong values that drive company decision-making, and a responsiveness to changing times and changing customers.

Their bottom line depends on it. Because most companies are forced to reflect on their brand’s success with customers every quarter, the good ones are innovative and flexible, aggressive in launching new products and in listening to customer feedback.

By focusing on these basics, a company earns trust and trust delivers customers.

That’s a lesson both the Republican and Democratic parties need to learn if people’s current view of the two parties in Congress is any indication. Clearly, the brands of the country’s two national parties need more than a little refurbishing.

In a recent focus group of independent voters, one man, talking about the current state of politics, told us that the “near success of Sanders and the success of Trump just indicates that the party leadership has absolutely no idea what regular people think.”

Today, 29 percent of the country has an unfavorable view of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, according to the latest Winning the Issues survey. That number jumps to 53 percent among independents, who will likely tip the election results this fall.

The congressional brands of both parties have been on a significant downhill slide for the past 10 years. In June 2006, voters gave Republicans in Congress a 43 percent favorable/51 percent unfavorable rating. Democrats didn’t fare much better with a 45 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable. At the end of last month, Republicans had slipped to a 35 percent favorable/61 percent unfavorable, while Democrats were down to 38 percent favorable/57 percent unfavorable. Neither in good shape.

Companies with these kinds of “sales” numbers would be rethinking what and how they’re selling because something is clearly wrong. But before taking this analogy too far, there are some operational and environmental differences to consider between how business and politics operate.


A political product

Corporations measure success differently: by number of products sold, by market share, and by return on investment, to name three. In politics, the only market share that counts is winning a majority coalition, the ultimate ROI. Still, politicians can learn a lot from how iconic brands have earned their enviable status starting with offering a better product line, the most effective way to build a majority coalition.

More and more, people are demanding content from candidates and parties. But for much of the political consulting community in both parties, that kind of thinking is almost heretical. Slick negative ad campaigns are still the go-to tactic foisted on candidates by their consultants. Perhaps that’s understandable. Attack ads with the occasional bio spot are the easy alternative.

But what creates a successful brand — first and foremost — are products that have value for people. Similarly, political parties are in the business of offering voters a value proposition based on policy products that reflect the the party’s basic ideology and offer solutions that address voters’ needs.

That’s what voters want this year. People want to vote for something or someone, not simply against the “other candidate.” But most of the discourse from the parties, egged on by the media, revolves around not why a party or a proposal is good, but rather why the other party and its ideas are so bad — the antithesis of how successful companies operate.

Ford doesn’t spend the bulk of its advertising budget trashing Chevy or Chrysler. It focuses on what’s good about Ford cars and trucks. Walmart’s sales strategy is all about price and choice, not negative ads attacking Target. Pick almost any industry and this positive sales strategy applies, whether it’s Home Depot versus Lowe’s or Pepsi going up against Coke.

That doesn’t mean candidates or the parties can’t debate their policy differences. That’s part of the process. But it’s important to understand that candidates aren’t the “product.” Their ideas are. Candidates are the means to sell a party’s ideas, just as stores exist to sell a company’s products.

ICYMI: Which House Races Are the Parties Targeting? Look to the Money, the TV Ad Money

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Conflict sells

But in the political arena, controversy — the nastier the better — is what gets air time and eyeballs. A substantive discussion of the parties’ differing proposals or plans, what people need and want to hear about, gets short shrift whether its cable news or network news, print media or media websites.

I was once on a media panel discussing this topic and suggested that education was an issue people cared about that rarely got media attention. One of the journalists responded by saying, “Where’s the conflict in that?” Sadly, that attitude reflects much of the media coverage today.

As a result, the country doesn’t get solutions from candidates or parties; it gets accusations which are hardly persuasive, especially for independent voters who have already decided that being affiliated with a party isn’t an option.

Developing a product line that resonates with voters in this negative political environment is further complicated by policy differences within both parties. While Republicans have their own problems, much of them centered on immigration and finding an alternative to Obamacare, these are for the most part tactical and not ideological differences.

But it is becoming increasingly evident that growing pressure from socialists is creating a serious ideological dilemma for Democrats, as the establishment camp seeks to stay on a more traditional political path while its activist wing pushes the party hard-left.

Elections are won in the middle, not at the extremes. Democratic congressional leaders understand this political fact of life, but a big chunk of their base — the most enthusiastic and vocal part — has left them behind as it rushes to embrace controversial policies from economic socialism to abolishing ICE.

What these folks don’t understand is that this remains a center-right country. A far-left policy product, like getting rid of ICE, may be a proposal that wins you a primary contest in some districts, but for most Americans living paycheck to paycheck, it misses the mark and will make a Democratic win in November that much more difficult.

Talking about product development, Steve Jobs once said, “Even a great brand needs investment and caring if it’s going to retain its relevance and vitality.”

Whether you’re selling smart phones or smart legislative policies, products matter, and to be successful, they have to matter to people. Voters want clearly defined and understandable policy products. That means political parties need to define for voters a clear value proposition that turns principles into products and addresses their concerns.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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