The Supreme Court is very much in the news. It’s summer, so it’s decision time and we’ve had a series of important decisions coming down from the Supreme Court (as we do every summer). But with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, it’s also time for President Trump to put forth his nominee for the Court. Will it be Amy Coney Barrett? Thomas Hardiman? Or perhaps Brett Kavanaugh? Or none of the above? Only Trump knows and as the time of this writing, he’s not talking or tweeting.
But, as marketers, let’s talk about something deeper at the Supreme Court, and that is its brand image problem. Branding is a key part of marketing. A strong brand connotes key aspects. Apple, for example, being perhaps the most famous brand on the planet, conveys reliable products that are easy-to-use and best-in-class when it comes to technology. That’s the Apple brand and you can count on it. Other brands such as Wells Fargo and Volkswagen with their corruption scandals, or United Airlines with its seeming endless passenger troubles, are “brands in trouble.” The brands are either incoherent or have aspects that are negative. “Flying the friendly skies of United,” for example, acquired a whole new meaning after they forcibly removed a passenger last year.
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The Supreme Court Brand
The Supreme Court has a brand. Or at least it tries to. We have nine austere justices, all in black robes. Looking all “pomp and circumstance.” Serious. Impartial. Very serious people you can trust to make very serious decisions. Take a look at this photo:
Austere right? Serious right? But impartial? Ay, there’s the rub.
The whole legal system is built on the idea that “justice is blind” and that the “law is impartial.” That’s the “brand,” as it were, of not just the Supreme Court but of the whole legal system. And that brand, I submit to you, is in trouble. Pretty serious trouble.
The Brand Image of the Court
If the law were impartial, if the law were easy to see and enforce, if it were “objective” the way that gravity is objective, or the way that scientific facts such as the speed of light are objective, then we wouldn’t need an “odd” number of justices, would we? We could have one Supreme Court justice, or an even number, or even abolish the Court altogether. Or, if the law were objective, then we wouldn’t have reversals, such as the reversals of the Dred Scott v. Sandford Decision of 1857, which declared that black people were inferior to whites, weren’t and couldn’t be US citizen and other terrible things. We fought a Civil War over that one. Or the reversal of Plessy vs. Ferguson of 1896, another racially charged decision that enabled the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Or the Left wouldn’t be worried about a possible reversal of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, or Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized Gay marriage. Or the Right wouldn’t be eager to get a Trump appointee and reverse Roe or Obergefell.
So, while the attempted brand image of the Supreme Court is a bunch of very serious people making very serious decisions and implicitly that the law is unbiased, objective, and real… well, the reality of the Court is a lot more complicated. And the brand image of an impartial Court seems to be breaking down. It seems to be becoming a brand image in which the “covert” power struggle is becoming an overt “power struggle,” between the Left and the Right on the Court, and the idea that whoever has power gets to have their way. Trump might “win” the battle by placing a conservative justice on the Court but lose the war by worsening the Court’s legitimacy as an impartial and non-political branch of government.
Power or Justice?
So if the brand image of the Supreme Court becomes really one of power, and not one of justice, one that the powerful run the Court and it really has little or nothing to do with objective truths or impartial laws, then whichever side is “losing” isn’t going to perceive the Court as legitimate. It’s not unlike if Apple were to begin producing inferior phones, Volkswagen continued to cheat on diesel smog emission tests, or United Airlines continued to give us whole new and atrocious meanings to “flying the friendly skies.”
As those examples show, a brand image can run amuck and become negative, very negative.
I submit to you, fellow marketers, that the Supreme Court is a brand in trouble, and it may be high time for the highest Court in the land to hire a marketing and branding consultant. Or ditch the robes and just put on gladiator suits.