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October 9th, 2013

All of us have watched with varying degrees of dismay as the US government shut down. Both Republicans and Democrats alike share a wide range of reactions to this event. Some feel helpless and angry while others express satisfaction that this disruption occurred during Obama’s administration. Regardless of any individual’s view, one thing is certain: all Americans hope for better days to come — regardless of politics or economic goals. But what is the effect of the shutdown on Brand America? Or even more specifically on the brands of the political parties themselves? Is it Republican vs. Democrat, or something else entirely? Not a small question — especially from my point of view as a branding expert focused primarily on long-term value.

Consider this: when any brand disappoints its customers, it loses its shine and is no longer as trusted. Such a scenario is dreaded by any commercial business because loyal customers are its lifeblood. In fact, a brand’s most loyal customers are more likely to react negatively if their favorite brand fails to deliver — even just one time. While this may sound unfair, it is the reality of any relationship involving trust. Maintaining a brand keeps the most devoted customers satisfied at all times – and exponentially drives new customers through heir own passion. It has been shown, time and time again that a brand’s most devoted customers have very high expectations and just a single poor experience will transform the devoted to the disenfranchised.

This is also true for political brands in America and anywhere else where democracy is practiced and people’s opinions matter. With the current standoff in Congress that has caused the historic government shutdown since last Tuesday, both the Republicans and the Democrats stand to lose face in one way or another. It is obvious from the recent polls that Americans in general are not amused with the current government shutdown. The customers or ‘constituents’ of these two brands or parties are severely disappointed. Thus, just like consumer companies, the Republicans and Democrats have both taken a serious brand hit since the first day of the government shutdown — to the point where a vast majority of Americans see it as unnecessary.

It has certainly awakened wide scrutiny of the Republican Party and therefore the Republican Brand itself — which may not have happened in other circumstances. In the 80’s the Republican brand was perceived to be committed to preserving American value systems. The brand held the image of a well grounded scholarly party creating policies that guided even governments led by Democrats. However, ever since the Democrats won the last two elections the Republicans are increasingly viewed as rigid and out of touch, even by some of their own supporters. Take for instance Ted Cruz who spent 21 hours not giving any solid reasons why Obamacare is such an ‘evil’ thing. His reasons for opposing the healthcare plan were so childish and laughable that any scholar would relentlessly bang his head on a wall just listening to Ted’s speech. Many view his lengthy speech as an attempt to attract attention and not because of his personal conviction. Not good for him, not good for the Republican brand he represents.

It increasingly appears to many that the Republican brand stands for ideas based on the fear of the unknown and the desire for a utopian, almost fictional past — one that avoids the realities of a modern globalized world and often misinterprets events for its own interests. The Republican brand is no longer considered to be the impetus for American intellectual energy but a disorganized unit — and as a result the party’s brand itself is at stake.

Though the Republican brand is taking a beating from the government shutdown, general American voters are angry with almost everyone in Washington including Democrats, so neither party has escaped. They are just angrier at the Republicans. In addition, not everyone is a fan of Obamacare but they don’t want Republicans to shut down the government over it.

However, the Republican brand is risking more than the Democrats with this government shutdown. The action has already exposed the widening gap between the moderates in the party and the conservatives. This divide is mostly because Republicans cannot agree on how to proceed after the shutdown of the government. Even though some Republicans want the party to compromise, such an action would be contrary to the party’s stand on the budget and size of government. Since this is their brand, any move away from it will leave the party without a base to stand on. Already, studies show that the public blames Republicans more for the shutdown than the Democrats. The party’s infighting has caused them to lose their appeal and this may ruin their chances for capturing the White House in 2016. A Democrat pollster who is studying the rival party indicated that it is losing ground because social and fiscal conservatives increasingly dominate the party.

Miley Cyrus parodied her song ‘We Can’t Stop’ and mocked the U.S government shutdown. She played the congresswoman Michele Bachmann and TaranKillam played the role of House Speaker John Boehner. In the video titled ‘We did stop the Government’, Miley insinuates that Republicans are only concerned about bringing bills to the house in an attempt to shutdown the government. She also stresses their obsession with healthcare. However, the most striking thing is that she only mentions the two figures that represent Republican ignorance (Michele Bachmann) and rigidity (John Boehner). Her hilarious rendition sums up one likely future characteristic of the emerging Republican brand: an ignorant, rigid, self-seeking and disorganized party. Not good for a long-term brand position that seeks to guide America’s future.

So from my perspective on these increasingly embattled political brands, neither a disorganized political party nor a fragmented consumer brand could ever expect to meet its customers’ expectations. Therefore, judging again from a pure branding perspective, a political party will always lose as its brand dissolves or congeals both in the market place and in the voting booth.

While it is true that at the moment the Democrats are far from “Brand Perfect,” they are the clear winner in the shutdown’s effect on the brand definition of our political parties, and therefore appear to be gaining momentum, mind-share and voter loyalty — for what appears to be an increasingly likely victory both in the near future and long term — and especially in 2016.

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