12/28/2010 11:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Year's Resolution for Democrats: Stop Being Out-Branded by Republicans

May this be the year that Democrats finally figure out branding -- and see how effectively Republicans have been using it against them.

As Marilyn Serafini notes in the Washington Post, much of the difficulty of passing health care reform had nothing to do with its merits, and everything to do with its branding.

Consider the radical difference between the ways Democrats and Republicans referred to reform. The health care bill's Democratic authors called it the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. No doubt they thought that name was entirely sensible, since it spells out the law's core benefits.

But the Republicans knew better than to waste time on sensible. They dubbed reform Obamacare, and worked successfully to make that sound like a very bad thing. Ask Americans if they like the components of health care reform, and most of them do. Ask them if they like "Obamacare", though, and at least half of them don't.

We are talking about exactly the same thing here. The difference is branding, and nothing else.

Unfortunately, very few Democrats really seem to get how branding works. They may understand it intellectually, but they don't know how to do it. If they did, Republicans wouldn't keep beating them at it.

To build an effective brand, you have to meet three basic requirements. A brand must:

  • Attract attention
  • Be easy to remember
  • Make an emotionally powerful promise.

Coca Cola logoThink of Coke® or Nike®. They attract attention -- you spot the logos instantly. You easily remember their names. And whether or not you realize it, you know the promises they make. Coke promises that simply by popping the top, your regular old life will be interrupted by a burst of enjoyment. Nike promises that by buying their shoes, you will break through your limits.

The same goes for negative branding, where the object is to prevent a sale. "Obamacare" shows how:

  • It attracts attention, in this case by exploiting a very famous name
    • Bonus: It not only re-brands Obama's health care plan, it begins the process of re-branding Obama himself.
  • It's easy to remember, because it's catchy
    • Note that creating catchiness requires a mix of art and science. It's art that finds the rhythm in "o-BAM-a-care", and science that knows the hard "k" sound in "care" is memorable -- just like it is in "Coke" and "Nike".
  • It makes an emotional promise, in this case a very negative one.
    • The very smart -- though apparently conscience-impaired -- consultant Frank Luntz advised Republicans on phrases that would resonate negatively with Americans, such as the endlessly repeated (and false, but who cares) "government takeover of health care". Sarah Palin, who has an extraordinary talent for pithy dishonesty, chimed in with "death panels". Pretty soon the brand name Obamacare stood for the promise that if it passed, you and your loved ones would die.

Against this, what chance did "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" have? It's amazing the bill passed in any form. And if Dems don't get a grip on the branding, how much more damage might it suffer as an expanded and emboldened Republican caucus goes to work on undermining its implementation?

The Democrats' problem with branding is an instance of their larger problem with narrative. A brand promise, after all, is a story. In positive branding, it's the story of you fulfilling your desires; in negative branding, it's the story of you meeting your doom.

But Democrats, the party of facts and logic, seem to have lost touch with the power of stories. Political Scientist Michael Jones, who studies narrative in politics, says it well: "Democrats are stuck in this Enlightenment reasoning kind of thing, thinking that if you take the facts to people about a particular policy it will be enough... It's this idea that you just present better information and you get better policy outcomes." But it doesn't quite work that way. As Jones notes, to engage people, you need characters, you need a plot, you need a setting - and a moral to the story or a solution to the problem.

Republicans get that, and act on it. Democrats understand it in their heads -- they've all read George Lakoff on framing -- but then they come up with "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" as a name for a historic achievement that will improve, extend or save millions of people's lives.

That has to stop. Democrats have to climb down out of their heads and get reacquainted with their hearts and their guts. Learn how to express feelings, not just arguments.

If they can do that, they'll have a big advantage: With the facts on their side, Democrats can tell stories without making things up.

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