The emotional brand wins

The 2016 US Presidential election proved the power of emotional branding, positioning and understanding the strategic conditions in which a campaign is run. Emotional brands build deep brand loyalty, have the power to go viral on social media and earn media thus reducing the need for a campaign to pay for media. Emotional branding, while making its users vulnerable to charges that they lack detail about their ideas, it fits with the fast moving world in which most voters live their lives. Emotional branding can be part of a positioning program. Both Sanders and Trump positioned themselves as outsiders and agents of change in a year in which many voters sought such qualities. While Sanders was the future oriented candidate of Revolution and Trump the nostalgic candidate of Restoration, their emotional branding programs positioned them well to compete in an unhappy country against a candidate selling stability and the status quo: Hillary Clinton. 


Bernie Sanders sought to pull the Democratic Party leftward and denying the nomination and control of the party to the centrist Clintons. Sanders targeted much of the Obama coalition. He stressed a “rigged” economy and game, bank reform, and presented voters with an America that was in need of a “political revolution”. Under President Sanders things would be radically different as the bad behavior of the one percent, the big banks and Wall Street and the rich would follow the rules and pay their “fair share” of taxes and that free trade agreements would end. He proposed universal healthcare and free higher education. Sanders had a great appeal with a few segments of the electorate but couldn’t expand and did not win. 


Donald Trump had extent corporate and personal brands. For this campaign, he used a tag line first used by Ronald Reagan in 1980: “Let’s Make America Great Again”. The contents and attitudes of the Trump campaign were much closer to the silent majority messaging used by Richard Nixon. In the Trump emotional brand the country is under siege by liberals, elites, liberals, terrorists and illegal aliens. Like Sanders, Trump argued the system was “rigged” and offered himself as a corrective to that. He presented in a narrative in which Americans were much worse off and in more danger than they had been eight years earlier. Trump’s policies were aimed at making the country safe and economically viable for average people again. Trump offered highly visual solutions to the nation’s problems: building a wall, tearing up free trade agreements, banning Muslims from entering the country and using signs of his wealth and business experience to show that he alone could clean up Wall Street and turn the country around. He developed colorful names for his opponents like ‘Lyin’ Ted (Cruz), Little Marco (Rubio) and Crooked Hillary (Clinton). His tag line and its heritage were a positioning statement that the country needed to be improved again and resonated with older voters who remembered the Carter years and the Reagan Revolution as the corrective to those. Thus, a vote for Trump was a vote for change back to an America in which working class Americans could make good money, everyone spoke English, law and order prevailed, and the country was feared and respected around the world. 


Trump and Sanders built emotional brands that created deep loyalty, inspired customer evangelism and generated a high level of enthusiasm about voting for them. Both Trump and Sanders were able to use social and earned media to get their message out efficiently and both staged mass events to bring their brands to life in highly emotive ways. If Sanders was the candidate of the future and the Revolution then Trump was the candidate of nostalgia and the Restoration. The Revolutionary and the Restorer both faced off against a candidate presenting herself as a continuation of the Obama legacy and upholder of the status quo. Hillary Clinton struggled in both contests. Her branding failed to motivate key Democratic audiences to vote. While stories were legion about the enthusiasm of the Sanders and Trump voters, Hillary Clinton struggled to build deep brand loyalty partly because of a lack of emotion that went right down to the hashtag: #imwithher. These failures mattered on election day when Trump won a huge number of working class whites, split on college educated whites, did well with female voters and showed great improvement with Hispanic and African-American voters versus what Mitt Romney had done four years earlier. Hillary Clinton’s more stability oriented branding failed do the same. On Election Day, turnout amongst key Democratic audiences was down, Trump did just enough with his target audiences and the rest is history. The lesson of the cycle appears to be that strong emotional branding and how to position a such a brand in light of market conditions are more important than clearly thought out policy positions, political experience, more sober values like competence or stability or winning debates.