It is rare to see a brand face a clear positioning decision. In most situations, brands change gradually over time, with the brand leaders working to nudge perceptions one way or the other. A brand might want to seem a bit more inclusive or innovative or young.
The Republican party is in a unique situation; it is facing a clear branding choice. The decision is quite stark: Is the Republican party firmly connected to Donald Trump and his stolen election story? Or does the Republican party stand for its traditional values of self-reliance, small government, and personal freedom?
Donald Trump is a master at building brands. His ability to command attention and get people talking, and his willingness to embrace controversial positions, make him unrivaled in politics as a marketing force.
After he was defeated by Joe Biden, Trump made the debatable decision to embrace the story of voter fraud and a stolen election. The story is absurd, of course. The theory is that Biden’s victory was corrupt, but the Republican party’s strong performance in the House and Senate was legitimate. How is that even remotely possible?
Nonetheless, Trump has embraced the tale. The election was stolen. He promoted the view with his supporters, provoked unrest and encouraged protests that led to riots at the Capital.
Republican leaders now have a choice. Embrace the stolen election fiction or try to build a brand that is distinct from Donald Trump?
Here are the options for Republican party leaders:
Option 1: “Yes, the election was stolen. Donald Trump was a great president unfairly denied another term. We will be very lucky indeed if we can convince him to run again.”
Option 2: “Trump was a fine president and that was an unfortunate situation in the fall. As a party, we are focused on creating a brand that will connect with the country, embracing our traditional respect for hard-work, families, lower taxes and small government.”
It seems pretty clear that the Trump wing has the momentum. Candidates that support the Trump story are doing well. There is a move to punish Liz Cheney for her decision to move away from Trump. Few Republicans have questioned Trump’s stolen election narrative.
It is less clear why the Republicans think this is a winning formula. Trump lost in November, and then Republicans lost the Georgia Senate run-off election, giving Democrats full control of Washington. According to a recent Gallop poll, the number of people who claim to be a Republican is way down. This all would seem like a firm rejection of Trump.
This branding move by the Republican party seems like good news for the Democrats. The more that the Republicans align with an absurd narrative and polarizing leader, the more the Democrats can aggressively push forward with their agenda.
Of course, in the long run the Democrats might appreciate having a credible Republican party; it would be a check on the more progressive wing. At the moment, the Republicans are going the other direction.