Donald Trump didn’t just win the war for the Electoral College, he won the messaging war for an important segment of disaffected Americans. He did it by strategically positioning his brand, his message, and perhaps by complete accident, his marketing drivers.
Trump paid attention to the one data set we now know mattered most—dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Dr. Larry Jacobs told a group of journalists and producers during the political conventions (myself included) that this was a political insight that couldn’t be ignored. Jacobs warned that it would be extremely difficult for an incumbent or someone closely tied to an incumbent or the perceived establishment to win.
In this respect, the polling was convincing. In the aggregate tracking compiled by Real Clear Politics, the margins couldn’t be more stark. (Figure 1) For nearly all of 2016 Americans believed with a nearly two to one margin that the country was heading in the wrong direction. Donald Trump focused like a laser beam on that insight and the people behind it.
In speaking to those voters, he positioned himself in their minds as the candidate who represented change. Quite frankly, he stole a page from the strategic marketing playbooks of major brands and products in carving out a point of differentiation. Consumers tend to build perceptual maps in their minds about how products compare to each other when they make a purchasing decision. I would argue they make the same set of comparisons between political candidates. In the case of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton the dominant perceptual map came down to a choice of who represented true change and who would be better for the economy. (Figure 2) As a brand, you want to occupy the upper right region of the axis points on the perceptual map. Trump didn’t just occupy this position, he owned it with the majority of voters in the critical swing states who tipped the Electoral College.
In many respects he did it through branding and messaging. In a previous post, I established how Trump personified the Rebel archetype. (Figure 3) His break-all-the-rules brand spoke directly to disaffected voters who felt that the country wasn’t just heading in the wrong direction, but that no one was listening to them. Clinton’s Ruler archetype was too closely aligned with the establishment that Trump’s voters felt alienated from. To be sure, Trump also successfully deployed the fear factor. By exploiting voter anxiety on crime, immigration, jobs, and health care insurance he banked on well-established economic theory that people are more motivated by loss than they are by gain.
But Trump also helped his candidacy by how he marketed himself. Former Campbell Mithun advertising agency CEO and University of Minnesota Strategic Communication Program Director Steve Wehrenberg argues that there are seven irrefutable marketing drivers. Whether by pure luck or shrewd planning, Trump succeeded at nearly every one of these drivers.
Brand Awareness. Real estate, hotels and casinos made Donald Trump a business brand and best selling author, but the NBC television show “The Apprentice” made him a star. By the time Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he was already a household name having built his brand as a savvy business expert and larger-that-life personality. Trump was able to leverage his brand awareness to get free airplay on cable news channels and largely bypass expensive television advertising.
Emotional Bond. Trump’s brash personality and shoot-from-the-hip style caused people to love him or hate him. But those who loved Donald Trump, really loved him. Trump famously said during the campaign “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Even when the video emerged of Trump making lewd remarks about women on the “Access Hollywood” bus, it only had a temporary effect on his polling numbers. We now know that the emotional bond to Trump’s economic message simply swamped whatever misgivings his voters had about the messenger.
Product News. Trump’s pension for outrageousness and unpredictability made both his supporters and enemies follow his every move and statement during the campaign. Quite simply, he was a Los Angeles car chase no one could stop watching. His use of Twitter as a means to directly communicate with his followers kept them constantly informed of his every thought and move.
Activation. In the marketing and advertising world, activation is getting the customer to make the immediate decision to buy your product through a sale, coupon, or incentive. In politics, activation is about getting people to vote for you on Election Day. For all of her superior organization, fund raising, and GOTV, Hillary Clinton lost the activation battle in several critical battleground states. Trump won it in part by his message and his personal social media appeals on November 8th.
Loyalty. This is all about providing exclusive offerings to loyal followers. The Best Buy’s and Amazon’s of the world build loyalty by offering discounts and free shipping if you join their rewards program. Similarly, politicians reward loyalty by providing exclusive access and one-on-one pictures for followers at donor events. Donald Trump attempted to build loyalty in reverse by making disaffected workers believe that he was the only candidate who believed in them.
Product Experience. Here too, Trump created the illusion that getting the chance to see him and hear him at a rally was a not-to-miss experience. To be sure, every candidate does this. But Trump’s rallies became a calling. At the Minnesota rally hastily arranged within 24 hours at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Republican Party of Minnesota reported 17,000 people RSVP’d online. Trump’s followers illegally parked on Hwy 77 and scaled chain link fences to race to the hangar to get inside for the rally. Even then, more of his followers were left stranded outside of the hangar than the thousands who got inside to hear him speak. (Picture 1)
Buzz. For better or worse, Trump dominated Internet search and chatter. The final Google Trends metrics show how Trump (seen in red) commanded a large share of search queries all throughout the campaign. (Figure 4)
Political scientists, strategists, and journalists alike will analyze the Trump electoral phenomena for months to come. Many will focus on the flaws of Clinton herself, her State Department emails, and her abrasive personality. Others will focus on her campaign’s failure to activate Obama Democrats. The Washington Post has already examined misplaced ad buys in the final weekend that could have contributed to Clinton’s final downfall at the polls. But perhaps none of that could overcome the headwinds of an electorate who believed in their core the country was heading in the wrong direction. Trump positioned himself to be the messenger change. They may not have liked the messenger himself, but enough of them perceived his message was the only one they could identify with.
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