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Building the Progressive Brand

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too.

OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?

Take your time. It's a tough question.

Give up? So have most progressives. Even the movement's most deeply committed members often have a hard time answering this one.

And that's a problem. Specifically, it's a branding problem. Conservatives have worked hard for the past 40 years to create a long-term brand identity for their ideas. Progressives haven't. And that has made all the difference.

Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for, because the conservative leadership has spent four decades nurturing a consistent brand identity for themselves. Back in the early '70s, the fathers of the modern right wing distilled down to its essence what it means to be their kind of American. And, being businessmen, they did what business has done for the past century. They hired a cadre of advertising, p.r., and marketing experts who knew how to manufacture a brand, build it up in the public imagination, create loyalty, extend its value, and guard it like the family jewels. Corporations know that a trusted, well-established brand is priceless, because it sets up a loyalty bond with consumers that ensures the customers will keep coming back for more of anything sold under that name.

Over time, the movement's leadership turned conservatism into a full-on lifestyle brand, the kind tribal affiliation around which people shape their entire identities−like being a Harley owner, or a lifelong Apple dweeb.* Republicans have been willing to invest tens of millions of dollars a year, year after year, to create an identity that's consistent and clear−just like the corporate identities of Coke or Ford or McDonald's are consistent and clear. Having made that investment, they respect it. They don't mess with the formula unless they're convinced the change will make the brand even better. They understand that the brand itself has an inherent value that outstrips anybody's personal ambitions, and must never be compromised. They don't tolerate people who deviate from the brand far enough to threaten it.

Making brand maintenance such a central priority explains why almost every communication coming out of the right wing explicitly reinforces the same deep values. If they're talking about education, they'll always tie it back to protecting traditional families. If it involves money, we're always reminded that conservatives are all about small government and low taxes. And so on. The narrative is so uniform because every conservative who's headed for any job over the level of small-city mayor gets extensive training in how to communicate those core values−along with plenty of inducements stay on message.

The most obvious of those inducements, of course, is access to deep-pocketed right-wing donors. But there's another perk that's at least as powerful. Candidates who toe the party line are awarded what's effectively a local franchise on that powerful national brand. Being the Official Conservative Candidate allows you to bask in its reflected glow−which, in turn, gives you all kinds of automatic credibility with the voters. Even if people don't know your name and are unfamiliar with your record, they're strongly inclined to trust you because you represent a brand they're deeply invested in. You don't have to waste valuable time or energy explaining your policies or values (which are already understood), hiring brilliant and expensive strategists (because the voters are already on board), or even selling yourself very hard to the electorate (because they already trust the brand you're affiliated with: they'd even vote for Bonzo, as long he was a conservative). With all that elaborate cognitive infrastructure already in place, running your campaign is as simple as standing up and repeating the familiar conservative tropes, knowing that your voters are already emotionally hard-wired to respond.

Progressives, on the other hand, have never tried to brand themselves in any kind of organized, coherent way−which is why even progressive leaders are often caught flat-footed when asked about the core values our movement stands for. There's no self-defined narrative through-line that carries us from one election to the next (let alone from one decade to the next). When Democrats do engage in PR, they do it in the most ineffective way possible−in piecemeal one-off campaigns that are entirely too much driven by polls and focus groups, and not nearly enough by the imperatives of long-term brand-building and values cultivation. Instead, we do it in limited, short-term bursts that are dedicated to promoting a personality or an issue, not the movement as a whole. (For example, Hillary Clinton famously gave at least $13 million to Burson-Marstellar PR star Mark Penn−but the objective of that campaign was to build Brand Hillary, not Brand Progressive.) There's never been a well-designed, sustained, overarching campaign to define who we are, what we believe, or why Americans should trust us.

And this failure has several important consequences that put both our candidates and our whole movement at a decided disadvantage.

First, since we don't have a well-integrated sense of what our values are--we find it very hard to express what we stand for in any kind of inspiring, compelling way. People won't trust us until we can tell them exactly where we want to lead them, and why it's a better place. Talking about policies and programs doesn't do it: progressives always been at our best when we speak from a place of strong moral authority, rooted deeply in a daring vision of the kind of world we'd like to create. If we can't envision that world clearly in our own minds, we certainly can't describe it with conviction to other people. If we do have that vision, it becomes much easier to sell the grand idea of a progressive America in every public statement we make.

Second, when we don't even try to define who we are, we leave the field wide open for the right wing to do it for us. Our failure to proactively brand ourselves has allowed conservatives to paint us as weak, soft-headed, and ineffectual. We've even let them hijack the very language we use to describe core democratic ideas like "freedom," "responsibility," "security," and "rights." And they're going to keep doing this until we can proffer an emotionally resonant, inspiring, seamless counter-narrative that seizes that language back, and frames progressives as forward-thinking, realistic, and strong.

Third: we send our candidates out into the field without the kind of deep, ready-made political context that conservative candidates can just slip right into. Each and every election, our folks are working three times harder, because they have to sell not only themselves; they also have to re-write and promote some kind of larger progressive narrative as well. People don't automatically just know what we stand for; there are no positive frames in the public mind to activate. The frames that do exist are mostly negative, and supplied and activated by conservatives.

Fixing this won't be easy. For one thing, getting any kind of consensus among progressives that this kind of branding effort is worthwhile is a hard ask, despite the fact that the conservatives have proven that this strategy is perhaps the biggest bang for the buck possible in politics. We don't use half of what America's world-class advertising, p.r., and marketing pros know about how to market a brand, because progressives−as partisans of reason and rational choice−tend to view these techniques as unduly manipulative. To our way of thinking, it feels dirty. It feels like cheating.

For another, there's likely to be some disagreement over what those core values might be. Conservatives disagree mightily on their core value set, too (defense hawks, for example, aren't entirely on board with the low taxes/small government narrative, for obvious reasons); but their respect for the integrity of the brand is so central that they'll keep those arguments out of the public eye at any cost. If progressives can't come to broad agreement that brand-building is a core priority that takes precedence over internal disagreements, we can count on dissenters taking their objections public−which will inevitably damage and dilute the impact of the brand.

Finally, we simply don't have the donor infrastructure to sustain the kind of consistent, long-term investment this would take. Ten million dollars a year over ten years could change the entire cultural landscape of America, completely rewriting the popular narratives in our favor. (And the change would come astonishingly fast: with world-class pros in charge, we'd probably start seeing the first positive results within twelve to 18 months.) But progressive donors are famous for their short attention spans. Finding funders who would be willing to commit to a ten-year, multi-pronged campaign may well prove to be impossible.

These problems may or may not be insurmountable. But the first step in overcoming them is acknowledging the tremendous advantages the conservatives have gained by 40 years of assiduous, careful brand-building; and taking stock of the ways we've been consistently rolled, over and over across the decades, because we haven't been willing to compete on this biggest of all political fields.

*Disclosure: Your author is a lifelong Apple dweeb.

Sara Robinson is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future.