Dear Progressives, Please Start Thinking More Like Brand Marketers
I love your passion for creating a better, more inclusive world that serves the masses. I am proud to have worked with some of you throughout my career. Like so many others, I’m committed to fighting personally and professionally for important social issues like racial equality, healthcare for all, freedom of the press, and expanding voter participation—just to name a few.
Where I differ from many progressive leaders is that I am a marketer, not a politician or activist. I have never taken a political science class, I have no interest in learning more about different career paths in politics, and I’ve never used a megaphone. However, as someone with decades of experience in the field of marketing, working with big brands, tech companies and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes, I understand how important brand messaging is in influencing people’s hearts and minds. I understand how to use the media and advertising to rally support for ANYTHING: product, service, idea, people… and I’d like to tell you something really important—you need to think more like marketers in order to build more public support for progressive ideas, turn grassroots momentum into nationwide demands, and ultimately win at the ballot boxes.
A Branding Lens for Beginners
What is branding? According to the American Marketing Association, “a brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” But we all know that a brand applies to more than just business selling products. Branding has always played a huge role in politics, whether you’ve realized it or not. If you’re not a marketer, you’ll need to get started by identifying the branding all around you.
First, here’s a simple definition to use: Branding is anything that you see or hear and gets stuck in your mind. And yes, not all branding is good branding. I’m sure everyone can remember a commercial that you thought was awful and yet it keeps popping back into your mind. Here’s a recent example for me–
But on the flip side, the good ones don’t just stick with you. They also make you feel something or do something (and that’s what the brand is hoping for). The best brand messages don’t trick you into thinking something, they tap into emotions you already have. They attach themselves to something you already believe in and make you feel good about making the decision that the brand wants you to make. There might be no better example than telling every athlete in the world, who already wanted to be like Mike, that all you needed to do was drink Gatorade to feel like you would be fulfilling just a small piece of that dream.
In branding, it’s important to note that nuance matters—every single word matters. There’s a reason why the commercial says “be like Mike,” not be like Michael Jordan, even though he was always referred to as Michael on sportscasts and interviews. First off, it’s shorter, easier to repeat, and therefore easier to get stuck in your head. I haven’t heard the theme song in decades, but I can’t help but sing it to myself right now as I type. They must have said “Like Mike” 20 times in 60 seconds. Also, calling him Mike humanized him, even just a little bit. Michael Jordan is and was a legend. It wasn’t as realistic to think that you could be like Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the world. But Mike? Mike was just what his friends must have called him on the playground when we was making little kids laugh, and that’s something we can all relate to.
So to review, remember these 3 basic lessons of branding:
- Be specific – get something stuck in people’s minds.
- Invoke emotion – make them feel good about it if you want them to take positive action, or fearful if you want them to oppose something (hopefully tied to emotions they already have).
- Keep it simple and repeat.
Branding in Politics
It’s easy to spot branding used by candidates with their campaign slogans–there are plenty of memorable ones even for people who don’t follow politics very closely. I Like Ike (Eisenhower), Let’s Make America Great Again (Reagan, yup Ronald used it first) Yes We Can or Hope & Change We Can Believe In (Obama). But branding is also used for almost everything you see or hear coming out of Washington DC, and more frequently in local politics, as well.
Not convinced? Look at the name of every bill written by Congress. It takes more than a good name to get passed, but the name can be essential for building public support (or at least avoiding public backlash to derail it). Look no further than the Patriot Act, formally known as “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT). There’s a reason why they didn’t call it, the “We Need to Spy on You to Reduce the Odds of Another Terrorist Attack Act (WNSYROATAA)” #WeAreListening.
The Patriot Act passed less than 2 months after the 9/11 attacks and gave the government sweeping powers to conduct surveillance on American citizens. It tapped into our citizens’ deepest fears at the time, another horrific terrorist attack on American soil, with a brand message that made you feel like by supporting it, you yourself were a part of the counterattack against Osama Bin Laden. There were a lot of vocal opponents to the bill, but there was never a groundswell of public opposition, and that allowed congressional supporters to gather enough votes without the risk of backlash. The Patriot Act name wasn’t chosen on a whim. It was written by branding experts working as political consultants. It was written based on research and insights into the American public’s psyche. It was market tested in focus groups before anyone heard about it…and it worked like a charm.
As a person, I try to avoid listening when Donald Trump or any of his supporters talk about anything. But as a marketer, I have to admit that I’ve spent a good amount of time analyzing why he’s successful. Marketing is clearly one of his strong suits. In particular, he has taken branding to a new level, with an uncanny ability to get simple ideas stuck in so many American’s heads. He has a brand name for everything and everyone: #FakeNews, #WitchHunt, Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, Crooked Hilary, Sleepy Joe, and the sad list goes on and on and on.
He keeps it simple, limiting his phrases to two words whenever possible. While this type of “micro branding” is relatively new to the hashtag era, Trump also follows traditional branding acumen, like attaching his brand to basic, but wildly popular concepts such as “Freedom” and “America.” He also taps into peoples’ greatest fears with simple solutions: immigrants can’t take your job if we don’t let them in, or democrats are trying to take your guns away but I won’t let them.
He tests his brand names out on Twitter and Facebook with Brad Pascale, his campaign manager, feeding back data to tell him what’s working best. When he finds a winner, he repeats it over and over again. Democrats and pundits make fun of him for the way he speaks. He does say plenty of stupid things, but in many cases, he’s not misspeaking when he says the same thing multiple times in a sentence. He is purposefully trying to get phrases stuck in people’s heads. He’s purposefully trying to get the news to repeat the words so that more Americans hear them. Team Trump and the MAGA megaphone on social media know that it’s important to be consistent. It’s not enough to talk about the same issue—they know they need to use the exact same language, the same brand terms, to make the message stick. Next thing you know, the “mainstream media” is repeating the terms over and over again, in most cases to try to counter his narrative, but they are still repeating it over and over again until it’s stuck in our minds like a bad 80s song. THAT is branding. Regardless of his policies, Trump has gained support from millions of Americans because he calls everything he does Law & Order and #AmericaFirst, even when they look more like #GiveFascismATry.
Where I lose all respect for Trump, as a marketer and a human, is that he figured out that persuasion and truth are completely unrelated. He’s using his branding powers for political gain. In corporate brand advertising, there are laws against lying to consumers. Sadly, in politics, there are no such laws, and apparently no more accountability. Trump has used that to his advantage, proving time and time again that the actual truth and facts are literally not relevant when building his brand narratives, but that’s another article for another day.
Branding on the Other Side of the Aisle
While the Republican Party seems to be leaning on their branding skills to make up for their honesty and compassion for Americans with different political views, progressive politicians seem to be taking a completely different approach. I would describe most progressive branding as a mix between altruistic resistance and ultra literal, almost self-deprecating honesty, in some cases. I’m a big fan of Bernie Sanders—I proudly voted for him in the 2012 Primary, and I appreciate everything he’s done to move our country toward a more humane and fair society. But as a marketer, he made me cringe when he branded himself and his political movement as Democratic Socialism.
Many Americans have a visceral reaction to the word “socialism,” and whether you do or don’t, you need to recognize how it affects other groups, especially large and influential groups of people. I would guess that the vast majority of Americans don’t want to be labeled Socialists regardless of the words you put in front of it. The frustrating part is that the majority of Americans actually do support many of the policies that Sanders and his supporters are fighting for. For example, Medicare for All has been supported by more than 2/3rds of Americans for years now, and in fact, it’s currently favored by 69% of the country, according to a recent Hill-HarrisX poll.
The truth of the matter is that we are living in a time where most people read headlines, not articles, and that has made branding so much more important. The short attention span we have these days has not only contributed to the rise of political misinformation campaigns, but has also increased in the importance of “micro-branding,” where slogans, hashtags, bills, movements, ideas and the specific words used to describe them all matter just as much as the concepts themselves.
To put it simply, socialism = bad, to the vast majority of Americans. That concept has been branded into our minds and society for generations. Too many Americans stop listening, or make up their minds about something, as soon as they hear the word socialism. Yes, if you continue to listen or read with an open mind, then Bernie’s explanations make a lot of sense. Yes, corporations have been taking advantage of our system, and the countless laws and loopholes written in their favor, for a very long time in our country—and that’s a form of socialism. And millions of Americans clearly agree with Bernie that “it’s not a radical concept that maybe the United States government should represent working families rather than a handful of billionaires.”
But when you brand yourself and your movement as “Proud Democratic Socialists,” all of the common sense reasoning that you share after that is ignored or dismissed. Bernie Sanders has gained a tremendous amount of support: millions of Americans have voted for him in the last two Democratic Primaries, but his inability to gain mainstream traction throughout the country could have been overcome with better marketing, not necessarily better policies.
This branding issue isn’t just a few isolated cases with high profile progressive leaders. The sad reality is that this mistake continues to be made by progressive campaigns, time after time. It’s happening right now, at such an important juncture in our country’s history, where racism and racial justice and social inequality are all coming to a head. As the protests and marches continue, weeks after we witnessed the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many more, we are seeing unprecedented support for Black Lives Matter from Americans of all races and ethnicities. Yet we run the risk of limiting the success of this movement due to poor branding decisions once again.
#DefundThePolice is one of the plans being pushed by a number of progressive groups, while many moderate Democrats and political commentators are calling it a losing issue. Like we’ve seen so many times before, it’s not the issue or the policies that are failing to catch on—it’s the poor branding that may very well derail an idea that could actually bring about necessary police reform.
In the last few days alone, I’ve seen countless tweets and dozens of articles trying to explain what “Defunding the Police” actually means. The problem isn’t just that you need to do research, but that the branding has opened the door for Republicans to scare Americans into thinking that progressives are trying to create a crazy dystopian future where police forces don’t exist, and vigilante justice rules the streets.
Would some Republicans push this narrative regardless of progressive branding issues? Yes, of course! But it would be far less effective at influencing mainstream America if this movement was called #StopOverPolicing or #ReplacePolice. Both of these campaign names convey the same underlying concept—the idea of reallocating money from the police, and distributing community responsibility, to develop more effective solutions to public safety—and are way more defensible than “Defund The Police.” When all it takes to scare Americans off from a valid idea is repeating their own words, you have a branding problem on your hands. And that’s more likely to derail the plan than the substance of the notion itself.
Case in point: it didn’t take a genius to write this comeback, but it was an effective talking point, reaching millions of people and giving Republicans an easy messaging hook to combat the #DefundThePolice movement.
The fact of the matter is that most people, even most police, believe that armed cops aren’t the best first responders to deal with mental health issues—yet that is who we rely on to resolve those issues and other non-threatening situations. How many times do we need to read a story about a small mental health issue with an unarmed, nonviolent person that turns into another police shooting? It’s not hard to imagine the societal benefits of a city-run team of social workers or public health officers trained in mental health response and conflict de-escalation. For the sake of clear branding, let’s call them “Community Officers.”
Now let’s imagine a future where instead of sirens, flashing red lights, and guns ready to be drawn, this team of well-paid Community Officers responds to these incidents instead. They’re mostly specialized social workers, with some hostage negotiation and self-defense skills sprinkled in. They arrive on the scene in plain clothes. They show their badges to identify themselves, and leave them out so that everyone knows they are officers of the city. They have tasers for protection, not guns, and they are trained to defend themselves if needed. They could even have small body cams for added accountability. They aren’t there to play a similar role as the police, but 100% focused on helping people having a mental health crisis and protecting the community. Their job is to defuse the situation and connect people to the resources they need, both immediate and longer-term.
In addition to mental health response, these Community Officers could be helpful in so many other situations. Youth services, nonviolent school issues, and non-emergency community disputes, just to name a few. I could imagine countless situations where trained social service experts with legal authority, acting as official officers of the courts, but with the purpose of protecting and serving the community, not the police department, would lead to safer and happier communities.
From a branding perspective, all you need to remember are five words: Replace Police with Community Officers. It’s a specific and simple phrase, and the concept is clear and sensible. Based on all of the videos America has seen over the years, it’s clear that something needs to be done to prevent the police from killing more innocent Americans, especially Black Americans. This movement taps into very strong emotions that millions of Americans are already feeling. But instead of using negative language that can be easily turned into a scare campaign, like #DefundThePolice, let’s use the principles of good branding to assign it a positive handle, like #CommunityOfficers, which would go a long way toward building the type of public support that’s needed at the city and county level throughout America to bring it to fruition.
I know these are complex issues, and there are tons of factors involved with creating support for social change. I also know that branding alone isn’t the one and only solution. But I can’t help but see so many missed opportunities, or situations where we’ve walked directly into failure, because progressives didn’t take the time to think more like brand marketers.