Friday Interview: A Closer Look at Rebranding the GOP | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's note: The authors of this post are the CJ Staff for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.

Marketing expert McNeilly applies business lessons to Republicans' goal

    RALEIGH  -  Ever since Republicans lost the presidential election last November, the GOP's fifth loss in the popular vote in the last six presidential races, some pundits have called for rebranding of the Republican Party. There's been much less discussion of what rebranding would mean. Earlier this year, the John Locke Foundation's Shaftesbury Society heard some ideas from Mark McNeilly, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He teaches topics such as branding after a 30-year career at IBM and Lenovo that included experience in marketing, strategy, and management. McNeilly discussed GOP rebranding with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

    Kokai: So first of all, why is branding so important to the Republican Party?

    McNeilly: Well, if you look at the perceptions of the Republican brand and the Republican Party, it's seen as very negative by large portions of the population. A majority of people view it as extreme versus mainstream. And the majority of people see it negatively versus positively. So, if you're going to win an election, obviously you've got to turn that around, and right now there is definitely a perception of the Republican Party as being outdated, older, for men, for white people, and out of touch and not caring about people. So those are all issues. If you look at what the data tell you, it says that the brand has a problem.

    Kokai: Obviously, [some] Republicans are looking at this and thinking, "Well, perhaps we need to rebrand ourselves." Why did you take a look at this?

    McNeilly: I am a bit of a political junkie in addition to being interested in business and branding, and I'd read a lot of articles about - in the political press - about the Republican Party needing to rebrand itself. And there were a myriad of those articles out there, but no one had actually taken the time to look at it from a business standpoint and say, "What would it take to rebrand the party?" So I took a step back, took off my political junkie hat, put on my marketing hat and said, "Well, if I were tasked to rebrand the party, what would I do?" And so, I wanted to get from talking about the need to rebranding to actually getting - here's some specific things you would do in terms of politicians, policies, logo, tagline, advertising, et cetera - really get it down to the nitty-gritty.

    Kokai: And speaking of nitty-gritty, let's go ahead and start with: You're the Republican Party. You essentially see this need to rebrand. How would you go about doing it?

    McNeilly: The first thing you'd want to do as a brand strategist is do what's called a brand audit. So you really look and understand what are the perceptions of the party and what is the brand doing to either support those perceptions or change them. And then once you do that brand analysis, that brand audit, then you can understand where is the party, where is that brand, and what are the recommendations I need to do to take it in another direction.

    Kokai: I imagine one of the problems with that, especially when you're dealing with politics, is that people will have different perceptions of how the brand is doing, whether the problems Republicans have faced have been due to the brand or not. And they'll be fighting about who is to blame. How do you get around those problems?

    McNeilly: A lot of it is going right to the data, to see what do the data actually tell you. And that starts with the perceptions. And then it gets into a little bit more of a muddy piece of, well, what is creating those perceptions? But I think actually there's a lot of agreement by Republicans of what a lot of the problems are, and what's creating the perceptions.

    The biggest disagreement, I would say is, is it a policy problem or is it a messaging problem? I think everyone agrees that there is a messaging problem. I think where there probably is disagreement is, what do we do from a policy standpoint? So I think there's a lot of discussion within the Republican Party about what is the right policy direction from a - whether you take it from a Rand Paul more libertarian view, versus the social conservative view, from a more, I might say, isolationist view - again of the Rand Paul group - versus the more hawkish-type view of traditional Republicans.

    So that's where you get into more of the difficulty of it, and it really is fundamental because it's not just a messaging problem. Your messaging has to reflect who you are as a party. And I think a big part of what the Republican Party needs to do is figure out what does it stand for.

    Kokai: So you talked about performing the audit, seeing how the brand actually stands now. Once you have the information and the data in hand and you come to some sort of agreement about what it means, what's next?

    McNeilly: The next step is, you really lay out the specific recommendations. In this case, I'll give you one simple example that's not really policy-related, but the Republican logo is an elephant. What does that communicate about the party? There's no tagline. So what does the party stand for in three words or less? So that's pretty fundamental - to get out clearly what the party stands for.

    And then once you do that, once you gain agreement on that, on what the problems are, what the recommendations are, then it really gets down into the detail of, OK, what is the logo going to look like, what is the tagline going to be? And some of those, again, get to be very fundamental discussion issues about what the brand stands for, whether that's a corporate brand or, in this case, a political brand. Probably a little bit more heat when there's a political brand involved.

    Kokai: Do you suspect that this is something that might be a little bit harder for Republicans who spend a lot of their time talking about policies and policy issues and tend to back away when people talk about messaging and branding and say, "Well, wait a minute, our ideas are our strength." Is this something that's going to be a hard sell for some Republicans?

    McNeilly: I think for some. I think it really is going to come down to ... The biggest challenge I found, the question I found is, are you just putting ... lipstick on an elephant. Let's put it that way. Are you just changing the messaging, or are you really changing what the party is fundamentally about?

    So I think within the party, especially within, there are people that don't want to continue losing. I think there's a young group within the party that really wants to revitalize what the party is about, whether those are candidates or young activists. So I think there is a hunger within the party. ... So we'll see how that's accepted, but I think a lot of those things are consistent with moving the party, the Republican Party, forward.

    Kokai: Another thing that's of interest, of course, is the fact that this is a political party. [It] has people with a bunch of different views in it and wants to keep as many of those people in the party. I mean it's different from a company that [says], "All right, here's our product. We're all behind this product because we're all getting paid to be behind this product." How does that make it different when you're approaching branding and rebranding?

    McNeilly: It makes it a lot more difficult to control the message. One thing I talk about is, you know the old adage used to be all politics are local. That's still true, but the new adage is all politics are local and national. And you saw that in this last election, where there were a couple of, to put it nicely, unscripted moments by candidates that really affected the presidential race. And so to get that discipline across a lot of different candidates - all of whom have different ideas and they need to appeal to the constituents that they have locally - can be very difficult. And you're right. It's a much more challenging problem than it would be with a corporate brand.

    Kokai: Does that mean that Republicans, moving forward, are going to have to make sure that they stick more to a central message that appeals to a larger group and sort of downplay the different ideas they have on some issues?

    McNeilly: I think so. And I think at the national level, I think the one thing that is pretty consistent amongst all Republicans is the need for fiscal responsibility. I think that would play well at a national level, not stated logically to people, but in emotional terms and what it means to people's families and what it means to individuals and what it means to their kids.

    And then take probably a more federalist approach at the state level, where a lot of the social issues come into play, because there are very different communities with very different views on what is appropriate. And I think a big inhibitor for people to buy into the Republican brand is their differences with some of the social issues. And so removing that from the national stage is potentially a way around that.
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