On Branding

This morning I came across a few links on the U.S. Republican Party’s post-election re-branding conversation.* This conversation has been going on for the last three months, and while a new “Growth and Opportunity Committee” has formed to move it forward, the recurring themes are still the same:

“The conservative message sells,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “We’re on the right side of history, on the right side of the issues. We just haven’t done a very good job on articulating the issues.” (Yahoo)

“We have to build better relationships in minority communities, urban centers, college towns,” [Reince] Priebus said. “We need a permanent, growing presence.”
Priebus’ co-chair, Sharon Day, who was also re-elected, made the same point in a lighter way. “I will talk to a head of lettuce if I can get them to vote Republican,” she said. (NPR)

“Democrats are doing better among voters who can be considered the future. Republicans are doing well among those who could be described as the pre-dead… For Republicans who want their party to do more than simply hold a majority of the House—particularly those who hope to gain more than just one-third of the governing responsibility—the GOP needs to stop digging holes and start filling some in.” (Gov Exec | National Journal)

Simply said: It’s patronizing to brand as “change” a revision of tone with no revision of content. Apparent welcome without substantial welcome just isn’t attractive except to the audience already served by the status quo or sympathetic to it.

If you’re at a crossroads and wish to reach beyond the status quo, consider the following four principles:

  1. Good Branding is Based on Nature: Brand yourself as something you’re not, and you’ll read false and lose credibility. Brand yourself before you’ve defined what you are, and you’ll read false and lose credibility. Branding has to be congruent with your nature. Even branding myths have to be grounded in something; for example, don’t promote yourself as an innovation center if you haven’t created anything new in a decade.
  2. Share In Context: Design outreach work assuming that the information you self-declare will only be one part of the evolving narrative about you. Your audience has Google and other resources at its disposal and will use them to validate what you’ve said about yourself and others in the past. Depending on the situation, validation or invalidation can happen while you’re speaking. So remember that you haven’t emerged ex nihilo, out of nothing. You have a context; any outreach you do going forward will always be part of that; and, most importantly, there are people in your audience who will never forget your past successes or missteps. Acknowledging your background and the lessons you’ve learned is a lot wiser than obscuring your background or constructing faux history for yourself or your movement.
  3. First Plant the Roses; Then Pick Them: Do the majority of your work before you start marketing. Clear, consistent definition, reckoning with audience-relevant values, providing reliable services — these are all things that need to precede a branding campaign, not follow it. Only once you’ve matched your offerings to what constituents value can you gain and sustain their attention and support: no sense in seeking the rewards if you haven’t already created valued products, resources, services, or expertise. Mere existence is not enough.
  4. At Every Stage, Be Responsive: Responsiveness includes connecting, listening, and adapting with constituents, not just reacting to them. Groups that adapt with their constituents don’t get left behind. Groups that refuse to adapt with constituents, especially because “We’re right, and our constituents just don’t know it yet!” do get left behind, and deserve to be.

I share these and similar observations when talking with religious marketers, ministers, and social activists: as Eric Hoffer observed more than 60 years ago, movements share some enduring features regardless of their ideologies or the groups that support them. To merely function, groups and movements need to sustain members’ allegiance to doctrines and commitment to programs, but to flourish, they need much, much more than steady membership drives or new demographic targets.

What have you noticed helps groups and movements to flourish? In your experience, what role does branding strategy play?


* This post is based on a extended tweet series from this morning; join me on Twitter for content like this.

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