The Essence of Democratic Party Branding
The central theme of linguist George Lakoff's 2004 political work "Don't Think Of An Elephant" is that for Democrats, both as a party and as individuals, properly framing the debate with right-wingers is essential to winning the debate, and consequently to winning the confidence and support of Americans. This strategy has come across to many on the left as ineffectual and misguided, at best, and dishonest, at worst. After all, Democrats are supposed to be above “spin.”
Framing, however, is most certainly not spin.** It’s addressing a situation within a coherent narrative that speaks to your values and worldview, without hesitation or shame. Whether or not they realize it, this is how people are actually evaluating you and the party, not on where you stand on the “issues.” At its essence, what makes a Democrat a Democrat.... and why should that be attractive to a large majority of Americans?
Facts are facts, and there's no question in my mind that we on the progressive side have the facts (and history) on our side a vast majority of the time. But as Democrats, unlike Republicans, are usually reluctant (or unable) to understand, at the end of the day it's not the facts that matter to the public; it’s their perceptions. And perceptions are very hard to change, regardless of the “facts,” because perceptions are very much controlled by our emotions rather than our logic.
Seemingly overnight Mr. Lakoff became a darling of a large segment of the Democratic Party mid-decade. (His star has dimmed considerably since then, but that's left for another day.) In fact, during the 2006 election cycle Lakoff was called in with other gurus in various fields to consult directly with Nancy Pelosi and other Washington heavyweights on party strategy.
Among this hand-picked cadre was business marketing expert Jack Trout, someone who I've been faithfully following for over 15 years. He was not directly involved with political strategizing before this that I know of; he has since also consulted with top-level Democrats during the 2012 election cycle.
Mr. Trout has written or co-written pretty much the same book about 10 times – hardly the only writer to do so – but for a very good reason. With only minor tweaks in the books along the way, in his eyes basic marketing hasn’t changed much over the decades, and I agree. It’s always been about understanding how people really think, form perceptions and make decisions. It sure sounds similar to what Lakoff talks about, doesn’t it?
Question: Why did General Motors experience serious and steady decline from the 1970s on? One simple answer is that GM brands (Cadillac, Chevrolet, Pontiac, etc.) began to lose their identity, their individuality.... their brandness. When GM started producing Cadillac and Chevrolet models that were essentially the same, except for the label, in order to save on design and production costs -- and the public knew this to be true, or at least perceived this to be true -- then people became confused about the brands. And a confused mind doesn't buy.
There were certainly other reasons for the decline in the American automobile market at that point, particularly with GM, but the branding failure was prime among them. And once the public's perception of GM and its brands as rock-solid, dependable and meaningful -- driving a Cadillac meant something, as did driving a Chevrolet -- sales and market share continued to decline.
There’s a lot to be learned from the GM analogy. Political pundits and consultants might disagree as they strive to maintain their status (and income,) but understanding politics, vis-à-vis the public, isn’t much different from understanding business.
Below are various chapter headings from three of Trout’s books “The Power of Simplicity”, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” and "The New Positioning." In future columns we'll look at how they apply to politics in 2014 and beyond.... and how understanding them better will benefit Democrats, and consequently America.
“The Power of Simplicity”
Simplicity: Why people fear it so much
Common sense: It can make things happen
Complex language: It can cloud people’s minds
Information: Too much can confuse you
Consultants: The source of a lot of nonsense
Competitors: Simply think of them as the enemy
Strategy: It’s all about differentiation
Customer orientation: It’s a given, not a difference
Leadership: It’s about leading the charge
Marketing: It’s turning simple ideas into strategy
New ideas: Something borrowed is simpler.
“The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”
The Law of the Mind: It’s better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace
The Law of Perception: Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions
The Law of Focus: The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind
The Law of Exclusivity: Two companies cannot own the same word in the prospect’s mind
The Law of Opposite: If you’re shooting for second place, your strategy is determined by the leader
The Law of Perspective: Marketing effects take place over an extended period of time
The Law of Attributes: For every attribute, there is an opposite, effective attribute
The Law of Candor: When you admit a negative, the prospect will give you a positive
The Law of Unpredictability: Unless you write your competitors’ plans, you can’t predict the future
The Law of Success: Success often leads to arrogance, and arrogance to failure
The Law of Failure: Failure is to be expected and accepted
The Law of Hype: The situation is often the opposite of the way it appears in the press
The Law of Acceleration: Successful programs are not built on fads, they’re built on trends
The Law of Resources: Without adequate funding an idea won’t get off the ground
“The New Positioning”
Part 1: Understanding the Mind
Minds Can’t Cope
Minds Are Limited
Minds Have Confusion
Minds Are Insecure
Minds Don’t Change
Minds Can Lose Focus
Part 2: Dealing With Change
Repositioning: Where Positioning Is At
Repositioning Political Candidates
Part 3: The Tricks of the Trade
Minds Work By Ear
Secrets to Finding a Good Name
Getting Around a Bad Name
Naming a Category
Research Can Confuse You
The Positioning Power of PR
Six Positioning Pitfalls
The Right People in the Room
** While framing shouldn't be likened to any of these, it's interesting to note how spin, lies and bullshit differ.