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The Democratic Party must step up its political branding to win

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The Democratic Party and its vaunted, persistent technology advantage didn’t help them stop Donald Trump and a Republican sweep in 2016. It won’t guarantee any better results moving forward, either.

To win government battles right now and elections down the road, Democrats must focus on the one source of truly durable, winning advantages: their strategic positioning.

In retrospect, it should be obvious that a tactical advantage like the one Democrats have had over Republicans on things like email, digital ads, and supporter data wouldn’t be any kind of savior.

{mosads}Compare it to a hypothetical tactical edge in the business world, like Starbucks improving its supply chain. Such improvements may help operations run more smoothly. They may provide a temporary advantage over competitors by improving margins. But there’s nothing stopping competitors from adopting better supply chain practices, too. Then where is Starbucks’ advantage?


In isolation, nothing about a supply chain tells customers why they should keep coming back. It doesn’t create a decades-long leg up in the coffee store market any more than an advantage on political technology inspires voters to return a political party to power year after year.

To create a durable market edge, companies depend on their strategic brand positioning—something unique and values-oriented that no one can do as well as they do. In the past, the Democratic Party proved that concept as well as anyone.

The Democrats had a historic 20th century House majority, lasting all but four years from 1933 to 1995. They didn’t maintain that majority by being consistently better at radio ads or other campaign technology. They maintained that majority by virtue of their position as the party of the extremely popular and effective New Deal. That was the party brand.

It wouldn’t be fair to give Trump too much credit for creating a genius brand, given that he did lose the national popular vote by a historically large margin of nearly 3 million votes. But he did position himself with a solid value proposition to his base voters, articulated as “Make America Great Again” and made many supporters feel heard in a way they craved.

Overall, the effect generated enough loyalty among core supporters to weather storms of negative coverage from everything from bad debate performances to allegations of sexual assault.

It’s only once a campaign puts that stronger value proposition in place that it can turn to communicating that value through certain channels where it has an advantage, such as digital. Hillary Clinton’s most frequent expression of her value proposition was the slogan “I’m With Her.” It didn’t tell people much about the actual value Clinton would provide, didn’t add much emotional content, and didn’t fit for a historically unpopular candidate.

But even assuming a party has an advantage on digital, and is able to maintain it, that digital advantage isn’t enough. Digital is just one channel, and in a world where “omnichannel” marketing approaches do more for a brand than any individual channel, campaigns and parties must leverage in-person touchpoints as well.

While Clinton herself had a strong field program in many key battleground states to make those in-person touches, she underinvested in key states like Wisconsin and Michigan, highlighting a bigger problem for Democrats moving forward.

Namely, Democrats have fallen far behind Republicans on the state party level in just such key places as Wisconsin and Michigan. That matters, because state parties are the level at which voters are most likely to meet their party face-to-face.

This in-person deficit has started to get more attention from the Democratic side recently, and the more Democrats can do to fix the state party imbalance across the country, the better their chances of building the type of strong brand that can hold the line on policy and carry them through the next election.

Ultimately, to create the kind of durable advantage that will truly drive future policy and electoral victories, one type of brand touchpoint isn’t enough. Democrats must expand their ability to touch voters through multiple channels and focus serious attention on honing their value proposition.

Will Bunnett is founder of Clarify, a digital agency specializing in political campaigns. He previously worked on projects for President Obama, Senator Chuck Schumer, and the California Democratic Party.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Hillary Clinton
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