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?

The Trump Brand election 2016Wrong.”

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

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3 thoughts on “Branding Eats Policy for Lunch: How the Trump Brand Won in 2016

  1. ROBERT L. says:

    So effective branding can/should include lying as long as you’re consistent about the lies? What happens to the brand when people discover that the promises are lies? I guess we’ll soon find out.

    I understand the lesson you are trying to draw about branding. But using Trump with his demogogic rhetoric as an example just to be topical makes any association a bit questionable, if not repugnant.

    I don’t believe you are recommending that clients lie to build their brand, as long as they do it consistently, but to not be aware of that implication seems naive or calculated. In a pure sense one could use Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein as examples of great branding. But no matter how scientific the argument I think most people would find it unpalatable? Will you use Trump as an of example of good branding when pitching your next client? I guess given this article you might. I’d be interested to hear the response.

    I just think you could have chosen a much less divisive and more positive example to make your point. The negative baggage seems unnecessary and distracting. It reinforces the belief that branding, marketing and advertising have little social conscience. Which is in fact true but do we have to emphasize it? We’ll package anything! Lies? Racism? Dictatorship? No problem.

    Aren’t we better than that? I’m not so sure anymore.

    Jeff Daniel’s speech from Newsroom: “Is America the greatest country?

    • James Heaton says:

      Robert, thank you for your thoughtful comments and I take your point.

      We do in fact care a great deal about the nature and honesty of the brand promise and have written about it elsewhere (e.g., BP Brand Lesson: When Brands Lie). The connection between an organization’s brand promise and its capacity to deliver on that promise is of essence and it is a key component of our work with all of our clients. The point I have made repeatedly elsewhere on this blog is as follows: You ignore the impactions and power of branding at the expense of your mission.

      A discussion of Donald Trump’s use of branding is in my view relevant to this assertion and this is why I approved the publication of Ben’s post. Emotions are very high right now and perhaps it was a mistake, but there it is. To acknowledge that the tools are effective is different from condoning the purpose the tools are being put to. If there is a way to make the world better without addressing the nature of human emotion and decision making, if all it took to win an argument were the facts, we would surely be in a much better place, but here we are. We live in this world where evolutionary circumstance has placed the limbic brain in charge of what we believe. So I think we are faced with a stark choice: Use this knowledge for good or be used by it.

      I invite you to read my article from a few years ago: Not to Market is a Crime—the upshot is that if your cause is good, then it is a crime against that cause to ignore the tools of our trade. We advocate that our clients learn and adopt these tools not because they are good in and of themselves, but because they work. I do not share Mr. Trump’s worldview or values, but I do marvel at his intuitive grasp of how branding works. If this instills fear in your heart, then all the more reason to understand what is being done.

  2. James Heaton says:

    We got some private comments and interestingly some unsubscribes because of this post.

    On the encouraging side, we got this from a regular reader:
    This is the best article I’ve read on the election so far! Really insightful and important.

    On the angry and critical side of the spectrum, here is an example:
    Please consider reworking your narrative ‘…a bunch of liberals crying in our citadel…’ I live in the NE that is an area within the US, not a bubble that insinuates alienation. The truth is that we are all immersed in our busy lives where we stand. The US is a very large country that consists of many sub cultures that have developed over time, each is doing its best to survive and thrive. To me, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a “clearer, more memorable, and more emotionally resonant message”. She spoke about her positions on policy. To me, her brand was crystal clear. Mr. Trump spoke in circles and made no real sense.

    It’s about language. It’s about subcultures. It’s about where we live and the unique history therein. It’s about psychological operations that exploits branding.

    We thought it useful to put Ben’s response here:
    I know that the truth is much more complicated than I could ever have hoped to express in this blog post even if I were a better informed and more perceptive writer. America constantly contradicts itself. It is large; it contains multitudes. I am one of the “bunch of liberals” and I recognize that we are a majority as he lost the popular vote. Still, the predictions of a landslide for Clinton were clearly far off and many more people found Trump to be resonant than the polls or pundits expected. I think that is partly because many people, whether they would admit it or not, found Trump’s indulgent stereotypes and wild promises to be attractive. He had a message that people held on to. In this sense, he succeeds at the front end of branding. The back end, of course, is the crucial matter of ensuring you can deliver on the promises your brand makes. In this sense, I think he is likely to fail.

    Certainly, there are many other reasons behind the election than what I address in my post. The post was deliberately reductive, and some of the language I used was deliberately careless. The intent was to reflect what I see as the reductive and careless nature of Trump’s language and his campaign in general. I’m sorry if that was not clear. I do admit the tone of the post is caustic and condescending at times. My sarcasm may not have been apparent—or it may have come off as shortsighted or immature. But for me, it was a way to try and express the frustration and incredulity that I feel.

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