04.11.2013 1

The GOP and JC Penney

By Rick Manning

It was a staid brand catering to middle aged and older customers who had a strong loyalty, but that wasn’t enough.

Change was needed. A freshening up was called for. A decision was made to appeal to younger, more hip customers. Everyone with a brain agreed, it was brilliant.

The advertising was prepared. The strategy unveiled. JC Penney was going to end the discounting that their customer base was used to, and instead go to a new look and feel store featuring a series of unique boutiques.

Old style coupon clippers were out, and a bright, wide open new shopping experience was in.

A little more than a year later, the results are in.

JC Penney’s rebranding alienated its existing customers to such an extent that they no longer shop there. No need to worry about hipsters being turned off by Grandma cluttering the aisles. Grandma is at Kohl’s.

And with the new vibrant audience not exactly trekking down the mall from the Apple Store to fill the gap, JC Penney is now in crisis.

The new CEO booted after revenues fell a disastrous 25 percent over the past year. His rebranding strategy a failure as the anchor store is now just a place where shoppers know they can more easily find a parking spot if they are willing to walk a little further to go to the rest of the mall.

Now, the previous CEO is back trying to repair the wreckage left behind by the smart, hip changester who tore down an iconic brand rather than adapting it to a changing marketplace.

A truly cautionary note for those in charge of the GOP as they are busily airing laundry publicly through autopsies, and public attacks on their core constituencies as they desperately lurch about in an attempt to become the cool brand.

An article of faith with the GOP rebranders is that the stodgy white conservative Christian base just won’t do it going forward into an American future that sees the demographic impact of millions of illegal aliens along with a highly secularized younger generation changing the face of America.

After all, the last election proved that the old messages fail, didn’t it?  Didn’t it?

It can’t be that the political insider’s choice who became the GOP’s standard bearer and messenger was the problem?

It can’t be that when your chosen messenger supported the core big government accomplishment of the incumbent, taking the most potent anti-big government message off the table, that you made a mistake in choosing your nominee?

It can’t be that when your messenger embodied the exact Wall Street persona that the nation has come to revile due to the bank bailouts, the problem isn’t the message, but instead was the messenger who could not credibly or forcefully deliver it.

Yet, just three years after winning one of its largest congressional landslides in history based upon the principles of limited government, the GOP is in crisis because they lost a presidential election.

Now, all those disappointed wannabe assistant deputy secretaries inside the Beltway demand to point the finger at someone.

Rather than acknowledge that Mitt Romney was, in retrospect, the worse possible nominee to face Obama, whose campaign apparatus was outmaneuvered and outwitted at every turn, someone else must be to blame. After all, when the autopsy coroners are the compadres of the attending physicians who put the patient in the morgue in the first place, those actually responsible are likely to skate.

If the responsibility doesn’t lie with those who ran hard away from issues and effectively told the base to sit down and shut up, there can only be one other culprit.  Those conservatives who demand that candidates and elected officials do what they promise and act as the party of fiscal responsibility.   By pushing GOP elected officials to keep their limited government promises and challenging those who either don’t or never made them in primary elections, it is obviously the conservative base of the party that is too blame.

It is this conservative base that just doesn’t provide the flexibility for those who know best in D.C. to find a sweet spot for outreach.

As this great GOP debate rages, one of the ironies lost on the rebranders is that the core strength of the Republican Party is that America agrees with it on the issues, until they learn who the messenger is.

The party doesn’t have an issue problem. It doesn’t have a base problem. It doesn’t have a flexibility problem. It has a messenger problem.

A problem defined by a party whose leaders never talk to the people about core principles, beliefs and providing a vision that creates hope for a powerful economic resurgence creating an American 21stcentury. Instead, the party’s leaders only seem to talk about legislative minutia and wonky details revealing a D.C. captured culture devoid of a plan for the future.

The problem is not that the Republican Party lacks powerful voices of all races, creeds and religions making the case for freedom over government control. The problem is that these voices get drowned out by the institutional ones who never make the big picture, limited government case, lurching from crisis to crisis, scared to go on the offensive about the big issues at stake for fear of losing the ability to make little deals.

The problem is that at a time when the party needs a Lincoln, they are being led by a bunch of McClellans, afraid to fight even when they have the strategic and tactical advantage.

As the Republicans rebrand, autopsy and reposition, I hope they do so with JC Penney in mind. The temptation is to chase the greener fields of new markets. But the answer is to sell your strengths using vibrant messengers delivering the powerful messages of a limited government vision.  A freedom from government intrusion vision from messengers who appeal to diverse populations and markets.

Limited government ideas sell and win. The only question is will the GOP be the idea retailer who the public buys them from, or will a new energetic alternative emerge as the old brand fades away into history.

Rick Manning (@rmanning957) is the vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government.

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