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For GOP, Brands Are Canaries in the Coal Mine

Many years ago coal miners carried caged canaries with them deep underground. The canaries were “leading indicators.” They would ostensibly react (i.e. die) first if there was a buildup of noxious fumes in the mines, and the coal miners would know to flee the scene.

In politics circa 2016 the roles of leading indicators have been taken on by brands. Wells Fargo, UPS, Motorola, JPMorgan Chase, Ford and Walgreens, Coca-Cola and Hewlett-Packard have all announced they will not be sponsoring this year's GOP convention. The fact that these major American brands are all beating a hasty retreat should tell us something about the current state of affairs in the Republican Party.

Branding is image, and brands like to look good before the people most likely to buy their products and services. That often means associating with people who inspire consumers – think athletic endorsements. Simply put, if LeBron James is drinking Gatorade, I better buy some Gatorade too regardless of the height of my vertical jump or my height... on a good day. On the flip side, brands avoid complex or negative situations. They tend not to drive sales. Hello, Donald Trump.

Brands, like canaries, are hypersensitive to situations going awry. They sense a bad situation often before the rest of us. Image is directly tied to sales and that’s really all you have to know. With Trump’s unfavorability ratings hovering around 70 percent, that’s a lot of phones, and soft drinks and computers that aren’t going to be sold. The universal view seems to be that the costs of being associated with Trump are so high that’s it’s preferable to just avoid the visibility connected to the Republican convention as a whole. And that’s virtually unprecedented.

Leading Republicans are a bit behind the leading edge of brands when it comes to Trump. One senses a growing movement to the exits, but there’s a lot of waffling going on. There was a Never Trump movement, followed by a certain bending to a seeming inevitability, heralded by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s endorsement. Now, in light of some of Trump’s most controversial comments yet about terrorism, immigration and ethnicity of the federal judge in his own case, there’s a certain distancing going on once again.

Some Republican politicos are back peddling with comments like while they support Trump, they don’t support some or all of his positions. That’s most common among Republicans running in tight races. Well, that’s just a little bit like wanting to have it both ways. Say what you want about Trump, and the consistency of his positions. I don't mean that in a good way. 

National politicians, when you get right down to it, are themselves brands. Most of us don’t know them personally, and that’s the way they like it. They want us to know the brand, and that’s the same regardless of party. With their obsession on political packaging and advertising politicians would do well to look at the behavior of brands when it comes to politics – put on your life jackets and look for seats on the life boats before it’s too late.

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