Rejecting “Crystal Pepsi” Conservatism and Embracing People and Principle Centered Conservatism

by Whitney Pitcher

“It was a tremendous learning experience. I still think it’s the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed. A lot of times as a leader you think, “They don’t get it; they don’t see my vision.” People were saying we should stop and address some issues along the way, and they were right. It would have been nice if I’d made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.”

Those were the words of Yum Brands CEO, David Novak, . His “great idea” was that  of revamping Pepsi as a clear soda called Crystal Pepsi. Crystal Pepsi was introduced to the market in the early 1990s and proved to be a massive flop. Why did it flop? Because they tried to change a winning product. However, Novak and Yum Brands took Crystal Pepsi off the market because it failed. They knew they could not get customer buy-in on a poor imitation of a solid product. Perhaps the Republican party could learn a lesson from those in marketing. When you match a good product with the right messaging, the product sells.

However, the Republican Establishment and Beltway campaign operatives think that the way to improve conservatism is to change it, rather than to do a better job of marketing conservatism. This kind of “Crystal Pepsi conservatism” is pushed by Establishmentarians like Governor Jeb Bush who wrote a piece at the National Review this past summer indicating that Republicans need to become the “Grand Solutions party” and abandon the “black lines of ideology”. However, in Governor Bush’s attempt to make the GOP big tent, he has tried to drive the ideological pegs into the swampy ground of moderation, rather than the solid ground of principle. Following the electoral loss last week, Republicans like John Boehner and conservative pundits like Sean Hannity have called for immigration reform. Bill Kristol is encouraging the GOP to give in to tax increases. All of these men are trying to re-package a failing “Crystal Pepsi conservatism” that betrays principles. Instead, the party ought to follow the advice of Governor Sarah Palin that she shared following the 2010 GOP victories, ” a winning conservative message must be careful crafted” just as Reagan changed his messaging between his 1976 and 1980 campaigns. The message may need to be re-crafted, but the conservatives principles need to remain. 

The Republican Establishment would do well to replace their high investment, but low return DC/NYC political strategists and operatives with conservatives who are in the field of marketing. Those in marketing don’t change good products; they only seek to provide the product with the right message in the appropriate media so that it sells. Conservatism is a great product. Individual freedom, free men and free markets are marketable to every demographic. It just needs to be messaged appropriately to our diverse American melting pot. Those in marketing and advertising use market segmentation research to reach our diverse popularity by tailor the message by race, income, education, urbanicity and other factors. Just as Pepsi isn’t sold to baby boomers using the same commercial advertising and advertising platforms as millennials, so conservatism shouldn’t be marketed to white empty nesters in the same manner as it is marketed young Hispanic business owners. Free market conservatism is the product, but the message to empty nesters might be one of reduced capital gains taxes to protect their retirement while the message to young Hispanic business owners might be one of reduced corporate taxes and fewer government regulations that provides a better life for their family. This enables conservative coalition building, and is something that would have served the Romney campaign well. However, Hispanic and black conservatives approached the campaign with coalition building ideas that were turned away.  The campaign did not effectively engage the consumers of conservatism. There is no need for pandering, but there is a place for engaging all segments of the electorate a candidate ultimately aims to represent.

Our Republic was founded on “we the people”, and that is what conservatism’s messaging should be founded upon as well. This is a  messaging concept that Margaret Thatcher understood an ocean away and nearly 40 years ago, when in 1975, the Tory party suffered considerable political defeats. She wrote (emphasis added):

Politicians should not be either professional efficiency experts or amateur industrial consultants. Their concern is with people, and they must look at every problem from the grassroots, not from the top looking down.

[...]

My kind of Tory party would make no secret of its belief in individual freedom and individual prosperity, in the maintenance of law and order, in the wide distribution of private property, in rewards for energy, skill and thrift, in diversity of choice, in the preservation of local rights in local communities.

Size is not all, any more than economic growth is all. Even efficiency is not enough. People come first—their needs, their hopes, their choice, their values and ideals. We have to understand these first—to be seen to be listening with sympathy and concern. It is important to be able to lead, certainly. But you cannot for long lead people where they do not want to go.

Conservatism must be framed in the context not in the white papers based theory of policy, but in the reality and application of those policies in individual’s lives.People must come first, and as Thatcher said, politicians must look at problems not from the top down, but from the grassroots–the people, not the consultants.The message medium has changed as well, and the Republican Establishment must adapt. Texas conservative grassroots activist Michelle McCormick characterizes the current GOP as ” Blockbuster in the age of Netflix”. Both the brick and mortar Blockbuster and Netflix have the same product of “rentable” movies, but Netflix acts within the framework of the internet while Blockbuster operates in the last century framework of tangible DVDs. Conservatism must operate in a new media, entertainment age. As Andrew Breitbart famously emphasized politics is downstream from culture, and this is something the Republican party must capitalize upon.

William F. Buckley famously noted that he’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. In the same way, conservatism would be well served to employ conservative marketing strategists instead of beltway strategists and blue blood politicians who insist on single minded and poor imitations of the winning product of conservatism.

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