McDonald’s is a national brand, but most McDonald’s brand restaurants are locally owned and operated. One interesting fact about McDonald’s franchise arrangements is that each restaurant is required to purchase its meat from the company. Individual restaurants are not allowed to locally source their meat.
Why not? The answer is surely not because McDonald’s is the best at sourcing meat. It seems likely that from time to time, local operators would be able to find higher quality meat at lower prices than the company. And the answer is not that the sourcing of meat provides a profit to the company at the expense of the restaurants. Such a transfer would be capitalized via the other terms of the franchise agreement, so there is no incentive to adopt these terms unless they are efficient.
The real answer is that there is a brand externality. Let’s suppose that one local McDonald’s tries to increase its profit by purchasing extremely low-grade beef. If you stop at this McDonald’s on a road trip and get sick, you might punish all McDonald’s restaurants by refusing to eat at them in the future.
This problem does not plague standalone restaurants. We don’t worry about them locally sourcing their meat—and often, we prefer it. But this is because they have only their own reputation to harm. If they shirk on quality, they bear all of the reputational costs themselves.
The brand externality would also not be a problem if everyone only ever ate at their local McDonald’s. If your local McDonald’s used rotten beef, you wouldn’t go there, and neither would anyone else. Other McDonald’s restaurants would be unaffected. But the fact is, people travel and indeed, that is often when they go to McDonald’s, so the brand externality is an important issue, and the company deals with it by standardizing quality across all McDonald’s restaurants by contract. This contractual arrangement between the central company and the individual restaurants is called a “vertical restraint.”
When I think about why the Republicans lost ground in the 2012 election, I think about beef that is well past its sell-by date. Individual Republican politicians have an incentive to cater to the values of their local electorates, but this can come at the expense of the national Republican brand. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local, but this is no longer true—the advent of cable news and the Internet means that some politics is national, as does the fact that more policy is now decided at the federal level. It’s like we have gone from a situation in which everyone eats only at their local McDonald’s to one where people travel and eat at restaurants around the country: a brand externality has emerged.
Given that national media is not going away, party leaders need to be able to impose vertical restraints on its candidates. They need to be able to ensure that local races boost the national Republican brand, even at the expense of losing local races from time to time. Local politicians may be able to get a local boost in turnout by playing to the prejudices of their bases, but if such activity harms the party on a national level, that is inefficient, and the central party needs to find a way to stop it if it wishes to succeed.
The admittedly oversimplified median voter theorem says that both parties should converge on the preferences of the median voter. To the extent that one party suffers more from brand externalities, the other party will be able to take advantage by converging more rapidly to that position, or by making more effective use of the slack generated by the ineffective party. Democrats are arguably more nationally-minded, and this means that in the age of political brand externalities, they have an advantage. If Republicans want to be an effective party in the 21st century, they need to find a way to impose vertical restraints on those who would abuse their brand.