Can the Democrats keep themselves on-brand? | Opinion

March 18, 2021 6:00 am

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It should be the best of times for the Democrats. 

The competition’s business model has literally proven dangerous to people’s health. You won’t find a much better competitive advantage than that.

And yet, I frequently see the same headline in the morning news.

“The Dems are in disarray.” 

That’s never easy reading for those of us rooting for the progressive side. Neither are the stories that follow. There was the surprise opposition of Minneapolis Democrats to DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal to help their city pay for security during the Derek Chauvin murder trial, for instance. There’s the ongoing dysfunction in Minneapolis City Hall. And the uneasy truce between moderates and progressives as Democrats try to make their razor-thin majority in Washington work. It can add up to a larger communications problem if the party isn’t careful.

And I do think it’s best addressed as a communications problem. I know a political party can’t replicate the top-to-bottom discipline of the big consumer brands that employ people like me. But both are human enterprises. Both succeed by convincing the larger public their ideas have value. Both face competitors working overtime to convince the larger public otherwise.

So here are a few observations on how the consumer companies I work with keep themselves “on-brand” and how that might be helpful for the Democratic Party right now.

First, most people — and from everything I’ve seen this includes political parties — think of a brand as something descriptive. It’s how the world sees you, and having a good sense of what that is will help you attract like-minded people. 

The more sophisticated companies see a brand in active terms. It’s a tool, to be continually measured, shaped to your advantage, and most important, invested in. At its core a brand is about trust, which is an all-too-rare commodity in politics these days. When things are going well you work purposefully to build that trust. When things get hard, it’s like money in the bank. 

This would require a longer term perspective, which is also a rare commodity in politics these days. But you see how it might be useful.

Second, a political party today isn’t one brand. It’s a whole lot of brands. Every candidate, official and political junkie with an active Twitter account considers themselves a brand these days, and it all gets mixed together under the Democratic banner like atoms banging around a collider trying to spark individual bursts of explosive energy.

That’s a lot to manage. It’s not unmanageable. Private-sector companies faced a similar challenge with the advent of social media and millions of newly connected and amplified employees. Some of that was managed through threat. You quickly learned you didn’t want to tweet something dumb and have to go see the human resources department. Not really useful for a political organization in a free country, however.

The better tactic — and one a political party could certainly put to good use — was to make sure everyone understood what the larger brand stood for and how the entire organization had a stake in its success. People learn to self-correct if they believe in what’s at stake. And, are presented with good examples of how to get it right. 

If the Democrats were to undertake that sort of big-picture brand assessment they’d probably net out with something like “The Democrats Have Your Back” as the party’s North Star. It would be a good counterpoint to the “We’re All In It For Ourselves” attitude of the post-policy G.O.P. 

Here’s an example of how that could help the party speak with a more unified voice. Recently Sen. Patricia Torres Ray left some unhelpfully honest language on the public record after rural legislators sought to take money from Minneapolis to defray the security expenses of the Derek Chauvin trial. “Your communities are declining. You do not have a tax base as big as mine. You do not have the population for the jobs of the future. I do.”

If the party was working with a more holistic picture of its brand voice she might have chosen different words to deliver the same message. “The Twin Cities have always had your back — a lot of money flows to rural Minnesota from our urban economies. Wouldn’t you want to have our back in the dangerous weeks ahead as we conduct a trial the whole world will be watching?”

This sort of thing doesn’t happen automatically. Which is one more reason it could be used to good advantage in politics, especially as the Republican Party seems to be coalescing around a rather toxic brand voice. 

Making it work would take some imagination, and some conversations with people who may not be that familiar with politics as usual, but have spent a lot of time learning about how to talk to people in our fractured communications environment. Luckily most of us are working from home right now and easy to find on Zoom. 

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Sheldon Clay
Sheldon Clay

Clay is a long time member of the Twin Cities advertising community who has worked on national brands including Harley-Davidson and Porsche.