A single word, phrase or image can define a company, for good or ill: Think Different, the “Swoosh,” Got Milk?.

Political parties are no different. With the largest conservative gathering taking place this week – CPAC – the GOP needs to do some serious soul searching about its brand.

The 2008 election and the rise of grassroots celebrity Sarah Palin brought the GOP’s branding problem into sharp relief. Finding the right message has become more difficult following the midterm elections, the success of the tea party movement, and the crescendo of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

The GOP brand can’t be an echo of the Democratic Party, or “moderate” in content. It needs to demonstrate its commitment to limited government, individual rights, and market-based policy solutions in a way that appeals to a broad audience. It has to consider various factions within the party and find a shared voice that can encompass them and a wider public. Ronald Reagan, it’s become almost trite to notice, was hardly a moderate; yet, he appealed to a broad public and made free-market conservatism into a successful brand.

Grassroots conservatives (and liberals for that matter) might tune into The Discovery Channel to get their Palin fix; but Sarah Palin cannot be the voice – the brand – of the Republican Party. The unbearable lightness of her commentary demonstrates she has not done the hard work following the 2008 campaign needed to become a serious voice on national policy. The fact that she quickly became more of an icon to both the Left and the Right than a real person means she probably could never serve as the leader of a party, or a nation, for that matter.

Joe Scarborough, Karl Rove, and other “establishment” Republicans understand this problem.

Scarborough wrote in Politico last November, “Republicans have a problem. The most-talked-about figure in the GOP is a reality show star who cannot be elected.”

Rove added a layer of bluntness, telling The Daily Telegraph, “There are high standards that the American people have for it [the presidency] and they require a certain level of gravitas.”

Similarly rumors are circulating Washington that Republican leaders are “ignoring” Rep. Bachmann (R-Minn.) in an effort to lower her profile and alleviate inter-Party schisms.

But while many elites recognize Palin can do serious damage to the Party and ideological brand, she is not the problem. Palin is a symptom of the limp, Republican character, and her success is a function of an identity-vacuum.

Scarborough and Rove are right that Palin cannot be the face of the GOP. Still, none of her critics has identified what – or who – should replace her.

The GOP needs, in a word, to be branded as competent. They need to be seen as the intelligent option, not in an academic way, but a practical, honest and capable intelligence.

There’s a tendency in contemporary Republican politics to reject the intellectual – the “upper west side liberal.” But the GOP needs to reconcile the ideal of the rugged individual with critical and abstract thinking.

That’s not hard. After all, a rugged individual – an entrepreneur – needs practical smarts and a reality-based intelligence to survive and prosper. He needs to be able to look into the future, imagine potential obstacles and envision solutions.

Too often the media portrays conservatives as one-dimensional – the “party of No.” But, when one looks beyond Palin and other celebrity figures, there are plenty of individuals committed to free markets and serious research. They have the practical solutions, competence and smarts the public needs and wants right now.

Lawmakers like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has offered up thoughtful proposals to tackle entitlement reform, lend a sober tone to GOP politics. Washington’s think tanks are filled not with angry activists but with serious conservative scholars working on market-based health care reforms and energy policies rooted in constitutionally limited government.

What’s more, a succession of intellectuals defined and created the modern conservative movement – and by extension the Republican Party. William Buckley, who founded the central conservative publication National Review, is considered a pivotal figure in 20th century intellectual history courses. Ronald Reagan, a man often accused of intellectual shallowness, avidly consumed serious works of political theory as well as political magazines like NR. He read widely, thought deeply, and distilled this intellectual product into digestible radio spots, speeches and practical policies. My first position in Washington was as an assistant to Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a prolific academic and Reagan appointee credited with crafting some of the most important foreign policy of the 20th century.

The Republican Party’s brand shouldn’t be intellectualism; but future success depends on its ability to demonstrate respect and appreciation for knowledge. This is not to say the GOP can’t be aggressive – this is politics. Even Jeane Kirkpatrick is remembered for coining the phrase, “San Francisco liberal.”

But the GOP needs a brand – and leaders – who reach beyond taglines to provide simple, but not simplistic, explanations. Sarah Palin has been given all the time and resources in the world to master tough policies; yet, she’s chosen not to.
Republicans can’t afford that kind of intellectual indifference. The stakes are too high, and this moment of opportunity is too brief.

The GOP needs to better define its brand. It’s a necessity if it strives to accomplish what this country so desperately needs – a fundamental realignment away from the Progressive state.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is managing partner of Evolving Strategies and senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.