driver brands drive decision-making

Yesterday’s post kicked off a four-part series, A Brand Strategy for the Republican Party — and Your Business Too.  As noted yesterday, this is a business post, not a political one.  Part One:  The Problem with Separating Brand from Product, talked about Rand Paul’s declaration during last year’s midterm elections, “The Republican Party brand sucks,” and how candidates had trouble separating themselves from their party’s brand. The importance of political parties to voters — and to politicians themselves — seems to have decreased, and if they have any influence, it’s often unwanted. This calls for a reconsideration of political parties as brands.Driver-Race-Car

A party might still function as a brand, but when it comes to elections (at least non-Presidential ones), it certainly doesn’t – and shouldn’t — function as a “driver brand.”  Driver brands were introduced years ago in the book Brand Leadership by brand strategy gurus David A. Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler. They explained that in most businesses there are usually at least two kinds of brands — the company brand and the product brand — and the brand with the driver role drives the “purchase decision and use experience.” The book went on to introduce an approach for a company to designate its driver brand based on the following spectrum of brand relationships.

Branded House.  On one end of spectrum is a “branded house” approach, which uses a single master or organization brand to span a set of product offerings – and those offerings operate with only descriptive names. Examples include the Virgin brand with its operating companies named Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Mobile, and Mercedes which uses M-Class, C-Class, etc. to designate different model lines. A “house of brands,” on the other end of the brand relationship spectrum, involves a set of stand-alone brands that generally operate independently. P&G manages its product brands such as Pampers and Ivory independently, as does Gap Inc. whose brands include Gap, Banana Republic, and Athleta.

In the past, political parties may have operated more like a branded house, with the party serving as the master brand and individual candidates as products within the master brand’s portfolio. In that bygone era, the political party played the role of a strong driver brand. In fact, specific politicians might have seemed somewhat interchangeable in instances when it mattered less who exactly was the Democratic candidate running for, say, senator in Texas than simply that there was such a person for you to vote for if you were a Democrat.

But now the role of political party as a driver brand seems anachronistic. The growing number of people who register or identify as independent, as well as the increasing incidence of a single person voting for candidates of different parties, suggests that voters are less interested in a candidate’s party and more in the individual person and his or her specific platform.

House of Brands.  The house of brands – the house of individual politician brands – relationship may seem more appropriate now. When product brands are managed independently from the organization brand, they can more clearly be positioned on specific benefits and connect directly with niche customers with targeted value propositions. Politicians seem to thrive on this kind of independence. They want to speak to the specific needs of their constituents and to address the contexts of their individual elections, which are created by unique sets of competitors, the specific positions they’re running for, and local political climates. They want to be in the driver brand seat. Many candidates including Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky already seemed to have adopted the house of brands strategy by eschewing campaign support from Obama.

But political parties still play a valuable role for some candidates, so the house of brands approach may not be exactly what’s needed either.

Tomorrow’s post, Part Three: A Third Way — Political Parties As Endorser Brands, will explore another brand strategy option. Subscribe to my feed to learn what an “endorser brand” is and how it might be used by political parties.


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  • Will Bunnett

    Thanks for posting this series — enjoying the deep application of branding theories to the political realm so far. This is a really well framed analysis.

    Could you point me to your data on increased split-ticket voting? If true, that would certainly seem to indicate some more voter openness to individual candidate platforms, but otherwise my understanding is that ideological cohesion within parties has been increasing in recent decades (fewer liberal Republicans and fewer conservative Democrats).

    Increasing ideological cohesion should mean that the party-brand signifies more and thus parties would become increasingly more like driver brands, rather than less, even if fewer people want to identify with them directly (by registering as independents). Though more polarization would theoretically make the biggest difference at lower electoral levels like state assemblies, where people tend to know very little about their individual representatives, than in high-information presidential races.

    • deniseleeyohn

      Thanks for the comment, Will. My source for split-ticket voting was WIkipedia (which referenced 2013 election results: http://results.aec.gov.au/17496/Website/Default.htm) — but I have also seen more recent data to the contrary and I have heard the same about the increase in extreme ideology within the parties.

      Perhaps your point about people wanting to identify with a party is the more salient one — people may end up voting more straight ticket but they don’t identify with a single party. This has interesting implications for company/product brands — is yours a brand that people want to identify with, or simply one they end up buying? The former would suggest making it a driver brand.

      Also you raise a nuance about lower electoral races vs. presidential ones that I had wanted to explore more (but put on hold with the thought that I might resurrect the topic next year when the 2016 election campaigning heats up.) I would think the importance of a purchase would be factored into the role of a brand, just as the perceived importance of an election.

      Thanks again — you’re making me think even more deeply about this.