Newsweek invited four “hot” design firms to “reboot” the brand of the Republican party to appeal to younger voters. Not an easy challenge. And while the design work itself looks good, I think each of them missed the big picture objective by failing to speak to core Republican values.
First up is Pentagram.
Pentagram proposes a solution that zooms in on the “Re” part of “Republican”, tying the prefix to a list of positive, progressive, change-oriented objectives. It frankly and straightforwardly admits that the party needs to do some soul-searching and needs to rebuild some of their ideas from the ground up, but spins it in a positive
way as if the change is complete.
I’ll admit, however, that I was shocked at Pentagram’s solution from the first moment I saw it: Two years ago I proposed that, in response to the GOP’s habitual use of the term “DemocRAT Party” (rather than the preferred term “Democratic Party”), Democrats should respond by simply using the term “RE-publican”, suggesting that the party’s ideology is just old-fashioned, backward-thinking slapped with a new paint job. But here’s Pentagram using the “re-” prefix as some kind of positive, forward-thinking signifier.
Newsweek explains that Pentagram’s “re-” approach “shifts the dialogue” from potentially negative connotations by commandeering the prefix for positive purposes. I think it does just the opposite, inviting us to fill in our own descriptive words. In fact, I think Pentagram may have already used up almost all of the positive “re-” words in this single design. All the rest are pretty awful: retread, regressive, repressive, retarded, reactionary. I don’t see why any party would want to be “re-” anything, in particular the Republican Party.
In fact, just yesterday a candidate for RNC chair pre-emptively rejected (no pun intended) exactly this approach:
“I’m trying to avoid the use of words that start with ‘re,’ words like renewal, rebuild, recharge, re-this and re-that,” Steele wrote in a memo to RNC members. “I’m convinced we should not re-anything. Instead, we must stand proudly for the timeless principles our Party has always stood for.”
In fact, it’s hard to see Pentagram’s design as anything but anti-GOP propaganda. The editors at Newsweek claim that these four firms are “non-partisan”. I don’t know about the other three, but in the case of Pentagram I suspect they might have a sleeper cell on their hands. If so, seriously: Bravo Pentagram!
Newsweek describes The Groop’s design approach as “Out: ‘old money,’ ‘faith-based.’ In: ‘new wealth,’ ‘spirituality-based.'”. And I think right there is the problem. How many Republicans would ever want to replace “faith” with “spirituality”? That’s the kind of thing that Republicans make fun of Democrats for! This is great liberal design.
Next up is Razorfish, who proposes, essentially (and I hate to be petty), that the GOP should copy Barack Obama’s groundreaking iPhone app almost verbatim, with the biggest differences being fewer features and using a red background instead of blue.
Yes, I know the point is to show that the GOP should use social media more. But seriously, “GOP Issues Trivia?” I don’t even think there is an idea here.
At least Razorfish isn’t asking the GOP to abandon their policies. Let’s move on.
The fourth firm is Frog Design, who focuses on emotional qualities of freshness and vitality without a radical shift in ideology.
Frog, I think, hit the nail closest to the head. There it says, plain and simple, “small government”, not just getting the GOP’s ideology right, but predicting what will likely be the right’s biggest critique of President Obama’s policies and leadership in the coming years. And while the photo suggests diversity, it’s not too diverse.
My criticism of this design, however, is the weakness of it –Â weakness in contrast with strength. Compare it to John McCain’s or George Bush’s graphic design, both of which evoke muscular military and sports brands. Hand-written lowercase lettering and a cute sumi-e elephant don’t quite evoke the “daddy party” strength that the GOP has traded on for decades as its core emotional and psychological attraction. Without this fundamental strength on display, I wonder if this branding would alienate as many Republicans as it embraces.
Perhaps it’s the initial framing of the problem itself that’s distracting these design teams: They were asked to reposition the party to appeal to younger voters. But how can a party appeal to a demographic who already cherishes certain values (such as diversity and tolerance) that are permanently and irrevocably diametrically opposed to the values of at least a third of the party’s base? Not an enviable challenge.
But maybe it’s an even bigger problem, one that branding cannot solve. Re-branding cannot help the GOP any more than re-branding VHS can help it compete with DVD. The product itself is obsolete and needs to be changed.
All these redesigns attempt to paint the GOP as something it is not: an organization in favor of scientific and technological progress, social change, a capable and pro-active government, and cultural diversity. But the party itself has, with great success, for almost five decades specifically defined itself against these things — that’s what loyal Republicans like about their party.
If these four firms really addressed the re-branding challenge correctly, they would have focused on selling the Republican Party’s values to sympathetic customers, not on presenting the party as something it is not. All four approaches would clearly speak directly to the party’s core values. Despite a change of voice and style, the re-branded message should still speak about the GOP’s actual policies: That taxes and regulations are oppressive, that abortion is wrong, that homosexuality is wrong, that excessive cultural diversity is undermining American society, that a strong military is what makes America great, and that individual freedom trumps even well-meaning government intervention.
What’s probably true is that the party itself needs to change and needs to actually embrace some of the values on display in these designs. It seems likely that these design teams were, in a way, suggesting to the GOP that they need to change who they are, not just how they present themselves. But that’s a long way off — a generation of Republican politicians will need to retire and die before the party will bend on many of these policies. These redesigns might be useful in 2025. For now, however, I doubt the GOP will take any of this advice.
Until then, perhaps some of these branding ideas could still be useful: Recycle them and give them to the party they best fit: the Democrats.
Are you a Republican? Do these redesigns speak to you?
UPDATE: This article by Julian Sanchez at Ars Technica outlines exactly how clueless the Republicans are when it comes to using social media and technology to communicate about their message. But more fundamentally it argues that the party itself doesn’t have a clear message in the first place. What’s more, it’s only remaining message — opposition — is weak:
The dangerous temptation right now, especially for a party in the minority, is to seek to recapitulate the Cold War coalition model through oppositional self-definition, when something more robust is called for.
I feel like I better stop before I give the GOP any more good ideas.
UPDATE 2: Okay, I had to add this after I saw it the other night. The Daily Show went to yet another brand agency, this time to Droga5, for one more angle on Republican rebranding.
I don’t know if “Reagraham Lincool” was Droga5’s idea or The Daily Show‘s (and in either case Samantha Bee is a genius), but of all the rebranding contenders I think these folks got it just about perfect.
Republicans, take note: This is how you do it.