Fear and branding on the campaign trail

BY Carey George

8 marketing rules shared between the Obama and Trump presidential campaigns

While the current (well, as of this writing) and former US presidents couldn’t be further apart in almost every way, from a branding perspective, their campaigns offer a good reminder to us as marketers about some shared principles of how to create a strong brand for a product that appeals to the masses. (And by “masses,” we don’t mean everyone, of course—just 50 million people, give or take.)

1. Find an unmet need and meet it

This is a classic—and still immensely powerful—advertising trick, following the “Have a headache? Here’s Anacin” structure. For both Obama and Trump, the headache and the cure were the same:

Obama: Feeling powerless and disenfranchised? I’m here to make it better.
Trump: Feeling powerless and disenfranchised? I’m here to make it better.

2. Use a powerful slogan

A strong brand slogan uses simple, direct language to pull the audience in, gives people an action to rally around and makes participants feel like they’re working toward a greater good. On the surface, both slogans check all of the boxes:

Obama: “Change We Can Believe In”
Trump: “Make America Great Again” (a less-inviting variation on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”)

3. Tap into primal emotions

Here’s where it gets interesting, because you can take the unmet need and the slogan, and go in SO many directions. The method is the same, but the emotions being tapped are pretty much the opposite of each other:

Obama: Hope, optimism and warm fuzzies.
Trump: Anger, fear and suspicion.

4. Use memorable icons and design

What Laura Ries named a visual hammer is crucial for creating a brand with mass appeal. Once again, both candidates chose super-effective visuals to emblematize their campaigns; memorable effect, but different strategy:

Obama: The “Hope,” “Change” and “Progress” posters.
Trump: The red trucker hat.

5. Keep your key messages simple

Don’t overcomplicate the features and benefits. Simple, concrete messages are the key to mass appeal:

Obama: Yes we can. Change. Progress. Hope. Forward. Provide universal healthcare.
Trump: Build a wall. Drain the swamp. Lock her up. Repeal Obamacare.

6. Be “authentic”

There are many ways to define authenticity from a branding perspective, and both of these presidents communicate a persona that is genuine. “Good” or “bad” isn’t the point; “being yourself” is the factor being measured here. For all of the behaviours that Trump’s detractors find deplorable, his supporters seem to love him more for his no-filter, “I say whatever I want” approach.

Obama: Gained authenticity points for being:

  • an outsider (Black; seemed to come out of nowhere)
  • a “genuine” personality; relatable, with a public love of music and basketball; someone who speaks from the heart

Trump: Gained authenticity points by being:

  • an outsider (bull in a china shop; seemed to come out of nowhere)
  • a “genuine” personality; relatable, with a public love of social media, tweeting at all hours; someone who goes off-script and shoots from the hip

7. Get some celebrity endorsements

An endorsement from a credible, engaged celebrity can make a significant contribution to a political campaign.

Obama: George Clooney, Beyoncé, Bob Dylan, Mark Hamill, Michael Moore, Arcade Fire, Michael Jordan, Merle Haggard, J.K. Rowling—it was kind of a who’s who list across all social strata and demographics. University of Maryland researchers determined that, in the 2008 election, Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement alone accounted for about a million additional votes for Obama.

Trump: Forget that more celebrities were speaking out against him than for him: Trump didn’t need celebrity endorsements, because he already was a well-known reality TV celebrity. Name recognition? Check. Reputation for being decisive, strong-willed and powerful? Also, check.

8. Finally, remember that you can’t rely on the brand alone

The best branding, messaging and manipulation will only get you so far: you’ll be running on fumes if the product doesn’t deliver on everything the brand promises it to be.

Obama: Considering the environment he was working in, we’d say he gave a very respectable performance.
Trump: Don’t even.