Branding Eats Policy for Lunch: How the Trump Brand Won in 2016
Millions of smart, well-informed people were convinced that Trump had only the slimmest chance of winning the 2016 presidential election. The polls were clear, said the news media. Trump was simply too objectionable, too inexperienced, too unpredictable to win. In liberal and urban areas, it was assumed that his series of shocking declarations and unprecedented gaffes had alienated such broad swathes of the electorate that Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion. Mexicans are rapists. Obama founded ISIS. Climate change is a hoax made up by the Chinese. Rich men can grab women sexually without repercussion. How could such a racist, sexist, blathering idiot be elected? Surely my countrymen could not do such a thing, right?
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there’s an intersection where President Street meets Clinton Street. Someone planned a party there on election night (complete with approval from the NYPD to close the block to traffic). I had a bottle of champagne in my fridge for a while that I was going to bring. Instead, the night ended with me and a few friends sitting on the roof of my building, morosely nursing beers, looking over the city and wondering what had just happened.
Trump won by doing what we tell our clients to do every day.
Most people I saw the next morning had a facial expression that matched the gray and rainy weather—a bunch of liberals crying in our coastal citadel. New York and other major cities are like bubbles disconnected from so much of the country. Trump’s message resonated with people outside these bubbles in a way that I did not clearly appreciate before the election. But in retrospect, the surprise seems more and more unfounded, especially to someone who works at a brand strategy agency.
Trump won by doing what we tell our clients to do every day.
How the Trump brand won
Plenty of people do not understand how brands actually work and how they differ from logos and taglines. One of our favorite definitions of a brand is “the story that people tell about you when you are not in the room.” Here’s a video that explores this idea in a workshop with the Tenement Museum in New York City. The basic idea is that a brand must be simple and clear enough to live in someone’s mind such that he or she can explain it to others. That means making choices: if you try to appeal to too many people or do too many things, the necessary clarity will be impossible to achieve. Our process is about helping our clients to make these difficult choices and figure out their implications.
If you try to appeal to too many people or do too many things, the necessary clarity will be impossible to achieve.
The process is deep and multifaceted and there is a range of questions that should be answered, but there are two questions that absolutely must be answered: Who is your customer? What does your customer value? The clearer and simpler your answers are, the better you can tailor a message that can be heard and repeated. In other words, you deliver the right story to the right people. Trump understands this intuitively.
Who is your customer?
Obviously, this is a tough question for a presidential candidate. America contains multitudes. But Trump chose one target, a significant group that the Democratic Party has been doing poorly with in recent years: the working class, specifically the white working class.
What does your customer value?
Trump has one overarching message: jobs. We’re going to bring your jobs back. It’s a clear promise (empty, I think, but clear nonetheless). A clear promise in response to a problem that has clear culprits, if you believe Trump. A range of other issues is really just about jobs: immigration, trade, climate change. These are complex issues that are interrelated in complex ways, but complexity is the enemy of a clearly understandable brand message. Trump, in the campaign, always brought it back to the immediate question of personal economic viability: jobs.
He talks about it ad nauseam. This is another piece of advice we often give our clients: be consistent with your message and remember that when you are sick of it internally, only then is it beginning to sink in outside of your organization. Trump has spent the past year and a half talking about the same things using the same third-grade vocabulary. “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” he said in the speech announcing his candidacy in June 2015. On December 13th, 2016, he wrote on Twitter: “Thank you Wisconsin! My Administration will be focused on three very important words: jobs, jobs, jobs!”
Be consistent with your message and remember that when you are sick of it internally, only then is it beginning to sink in outside of your organization.
The contrast with Hillary Clinton’s campaign is stark. There may be no better way to illustrate this than to look at how the two candidates campaigned in coal country: rural Appalachia, hard hit by weak demand for coal due to cheap natural gas and tightening environmental regulations. Unemployment is rampant. Andrew McGill in The Atlantic wrote an excellent comparison. His basic assessment:
If it’s Hillary Clinton on the stump, she’ll talk about job retraining, new infrastructure, and better education. But if it’s Donald Trump, the answer is simple: He promises to bring jobs back, and punish those who sent them away.
Clinton’s proposals for coal country were substantive responses to difficult problems. But they’re policy-heavy and difficult to connect to daily life. They offer no immediate promise that things will get better. An effective brand story is one that customers can clearly understand and explain to others, a story that resonates emotionally. Imagine someone who goes to a Clinton rally compared to a Trump rally: who comes away with the clearer, more memorable, and more emotionally resonant message? Look at what Trump said prior to the West Virginia primary:
We’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed, and she will never let them work again.
Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.
So, yes. Trump crafted a simple but effective message that appealed to a distinct target. From a practical standpoint, these are likely empty promises but from a brand strategy perspective, these are very powerful tactics. Still, isn’t it true that throughout his campaign Trump also made a great effort to destroy his brand image? His string of incendiary, bigoted, or ludicrous statements was (and continues to be) unprecedented. Many took it for granted that this would push enough people into the “Never Trump” camp.
Trump’s many egregious gaffes had a minimal effect on his brand. Why did the media and coastal elite fail to understand such large portions of the American population?
Instead, it seems that Trump’s many egregious gaffes had a minimal effect on the Trump brand. They might even have strengthened it. Why did the media and coastal elite fail to understand such large portions of the American population? At Tronvig Group, we use persona research to help our clients understand their customers. Personas are simple mental models of a person that contain just enough detail to think from their perspective and understand what they value. They help to tailor your offer to the needs of your intended target and craft marketing messages that will resonate with them. Again, obviously a reductive technique—especially as a presidential candidate. You could identify personas in the U.S. electorate along a hundred different lines including major demographic divisions by race, gender, social class, or generation. Urban or rural. Level of educational attainment. In such a diverse country, choosing your primary target and tailoring your message is a very difficult strategic choice.
The Trump campaign’s marketing target
Trump chose non-college-educated whites, who happen to be the largest voting bloc in the country (only 32% of Americans have a college degree). This group is equivalent to the voting-age population of blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans combined. Recent elections have seen them steadily fleeing the Democratic party. If you were to create a “white working class” persona, what would that persona value? Joan Williams offers some interesting insight in an article in the Harvard Business Review.
One highlight is that the working class “resents professionals but admires the rich,” as Williams writes. Professionals—teachers, doctors, lawyers, and especially the managers giving orders—are seen as arrogant and condescending. This is what Hillary Clinton represents with her complex policy proposals and her robotic, calculated rhetorical style. Williams points out that most members of the working class have “little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” whereas professionals “order them around every day.” For working-class men, a narrower target that Trump seeks to appeal to even more directly, Hillary’s “mere presence rubs it in that even women” can treat them with disrespect. Look no further than her “basket of deplorables” comment to see why she alienates them.
He might be inarticulate and extraordinarily prone to lies and hypocrisy, but his style is nonetheless a refreshing break from the usual inauthenticity of politicians.
Trump’s contrasting appeal is obvious. He is “really rich” and his success comes from owning his own business, the dream of many working-class voters tired of being ordered around. Hillary is seen as calculated and two-faced, whereas Trump embodies the straight talk that Williams identifies as a classic blue-collar value. He says what he thinks, pure and unadulterated. He might be inarticulate and extraordinarily prone to lies and hypocrisy, but his style is nonetheless a refreshing break from the usual inauthenticity of politicians.
It seems that liberals underestimated how little voters cared about Trump’s crass, incendiary remarks about women, Muslims, Mexicans, POWs, disabled people, and other groups. Some Trump supporters I have talked to appreciate his embrace of straight talk and repudiation of political correctness. The liberal mindset thinks that Trump’s startlingly ugly rhetoric should outweigh other reasons that people might have for voting for him. It equates a vote for Trump with an endorsement of this rhetoric. In many cases, this is true. Plenty of Trump supporters are bigots; I think the notion that Trump has normalized discrimination is legitimate and I am as horrified as anyone by the uptick in hate crimes following the election.
But we’re all too stuck looking at things from our own perspectives. I think that many people supported Trump in spite of his rhetoric because the social issues that liberals emphasize seem like bourgeois concerns that are insignificant compared to the immediate question of personal economic viability. In other words, what happened to our jobs and how will we get them back? Jobs are the key concern of Trump’s target persona. But there are a host of connected values: wealth, directness, masculine dignity, traditional social structures, and so on.
Many supported Trump in spite of his rhetoric because the social issues that liberals emphasize seem like bourgeois concerns, insignificant compared to the immediate question of personal economic viability.
Trump knows his audience and how to appeal to them. He has built his brand over a lifetime and executed a remarkably disciplined marketing campaign in the form of an election campaign. We often talk about how effective brands should attract and repel in nearly equal measure. In many ways, the Trump campaign followed principles that we implore our clients to use. Our first principle of marketing is customer understanding applied. Effective marketing must choose a marketing target, make the effort to understand what that audience values most and focus the product offer on those things. If you can effectively communicate how your offer meets those needs better than those of your competitors … you win.
Trump the brand marketer followed this exact playbook and his competitor did what many of our clients naturally want to do—talk about all the things they do and how they can help a broad range of different target groups with all kinds of different needs with the result typically being a muddled brand mess. Clinton almost won despite these brand messaging problems. Trump, however, won because he got brand right and because he landed on a winning marketing strategy to convey the brand message to the market.
The question we make our clients answer following the brand questions, though, is “Can you deliver?” Do you have the operational capacity to deliver on the promises your brand makes to its market? Can Trump the brand man deliver all those jobs that will make America great again?
I guess we have four years to find out.
Blog illustration for Tronvig Group by Sage Einarsen