What Can Marketers Learn from Trump, Clinton, and the Current Presidential Contest?
Back in mid-September I laid out my rationale for why Donald Trump would never be the Republican nominee for President in a blog for the ERA. The fundamental premise was that if you plotted the reality TV star on a product adoption lifecycle bell curve, that from the perspective of awareness, he was in a late adopter or laggard position. I hypothesized that meant that his upside potential was lean compared to the rest of the field of which there were many largely unknown candidates. Surely, I thought, one would emerge as the Donald and his sideshow of colorful soundbites, faded into the next primetime reality show.
Nom nom. Yes, thats the sound of me eating my hat, with a generous side dish of crow, accompanied by a heaping slice of humble pie for desert. Like the pundits who predicted Brexit would never see the light of day, I grossly underestimated the anger and utter disdain the citizenry has for the status quo. So it might seem odd that I would purport to know anything about lessons that a marketer might draw from the current election, and when I suggest that I try to learn from my mistakes, that the assertion may ring oxymoronic. Nonetheless, here are a few random observations.
Politicians, like any celebrity, and brands for that matter, develop a reservoir of goodwill over time. In the case of Hillarys followers, that goodwill is based upon the perceived good works of a life of public service, her potential to break the glass ceiling, and the long sufferings that are a byproduct of her husbands transgressions. Trump, on the other hand, has forged his goodwill by creating a perception of success by stamping his gold laminated name on anything he can get his hands on, and by being a blunt and kingly arbiter of the success of others (Youre FIRED!) over the course of fourteen seasons of The Apprentice. Both have their share of supporters and detractors and, as the election is unfolding, will need every bit of this goodwill at their disposal as the debate season unfolds, which is where we suspect the real battle will be joined.
Just as brands can face public relations nightmares such as the debacles of the Tylenol poisoning scare, new Coke, and the collapse of Livestrong in the wake of doping revelations, both candidates will face a series of PR challenges of varied intensity over the next several weeks. Like the aforementioned brands they will face the question: will they be able to survive any calamities or not? Part of what is making voters so ambivalent to both candidates is the perception that each is weighed down by so much baggage it would ground any other candidacy before it ever got off the ground. For example, the Trump University lawsuit, where hapless students were allegedly seduced and bilked by false representations, is counteracted by allegations involving Bill Clintons $16.46 million gig as honorary chancellor for a for profit university that Hillarys State Department funneled $55 million in taxpayer money to. These sorts of questions and there are many of them beyond misogyny, tempestuous behavior, email servers, and Benghazi will no doubt surface in the weeks to come, and be central talking points during the debates.
Just as marketers have to make the case for product or service superiority, so too do these candidates. In a world of information overload and constricted news cycles, that means the candidate who is able to communicate their message with the greatest economy is likely to win. Take for example, the campaign slogans. Trumps herald, Make America Great Again suggests that the country has lost its footing. Terms like leading from behind and a mindset that separates people and countries into winners and losers are things that are very easy to assimilate. On the other hand, Clintons Hillary for America replete with arrow pointing right, suggest forward momentum. In the simplest terms, one is looking backward with nostalgia and longing, while the other is pointing ahead, albeit ambiguously. Some would suggest one is more negative and one is more positive, but this is strictly eye-of-the-beholder stuff. On an individual basis, voters are likely to decide very quickly which of those messages resonates with them, which may help make them more receptive to the individual candidates broader message.
Short bursts of memorable words serve as a kind of shorthand that enable people to quickly decide whether something is right for them or not including candidates. That is why the debate zinger can have such a profound effect on an election outcome. When Chris Christie called out Marco Rubios tendency to respond to questions with robotic talking points by exclaiming, There it is! The 25-second memorized speech! during the New Hampshire debate, he effectively buried the junior senators POTUS hopes. For better or worse Trump, with his exhortations to build a wall and bring American jobs back, is a master at verbal shorthand.
Trumps ascension may very well be a byproduct of what Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink as thin-slicing. The theory is that people often make decisions based upon very little amount of information, but, according to its description on Wikipedia, frequently those judgments turn out to be as accurate or more accurate than judgements based on much more information. Some might call this gut-instinct. So, for example, a voter might choose Trump based solely on the fact that he is a businessman and not a career politician, just as they might select Hillary based on a desire to see a woman finally take the highest office in the land.
Given that consumers are exposed to thousands of advertising and marketing messages a day, that is why it is imperative that marketers (and politicians, for that matter), communicate with consistency and meaningful differentiation. On this footing, the Donald has clearly struggled and it remains to be seen whether or not he can recapture some of his goodwill given at times the only thing that seems consistent is a series of gaffes. Hillary, on the other hand, is perhaps more familiar to the public in that she represents a brand call it Clintonian where the likely behaviors and outcomes are more predictable. Based upon the theory of commitment and consistency put forth by persuasion guru, Dr. Robert Cialdini, one might surmise that Hillary has a leg up. According to the theory, people tend to double down on past decisions, not wanting to admit they have made a mistake in the past. Thats why its so difficult to unseat an incumbent politician, no matter how unpopular they are; call it the devil you know versus the one you dont know.
Given the electorates glass half-empty attitude towards both candidates then, the remaining weeks may ultimately be about which candidate is able to create the most doubt about the other. That, and the degree to which antipathy translates into voters staying home on election day or going to the polls, on either side of the coin. Predicting an outcome is as difficult as crystal ball gazing over the success of a DRTV product you just have to put it in front of the public and see how they respond. So while Id like to tell you which way this is going to swing, Im sorry to report that Im still in a food coma from the aforementioned feast. Nonetheless, I can assure you that my appetite for seeing how all of this turns out like the worlds remains fixated. Thats why I can predict at least one thing: the next meal will be a TV dinner.