Make America What Again?

As Canadians, many of us have watched our southern neighbour’s election campaign and grand event with rapt interest. We were captivated by the seemingly huge guffaws of a flawed pundit, and left scratching our head at what American’s could have been thinking. With inauguration the next big ticket event, it’s a good time to reflect back on what happened. And, according to one of our professors, we don’t have to look much further than the persuasiveness of a personal brand.

“Trump’s marketing campaign was one of a fad brand,” explains Laurier Chair in Brand Communication, Brad Davis. “He promised voters anything so they’d buy it. And as long as he doesn’t expect a second term in office, this brand strategy will go down as a classic formula for fad brand success.”

First, branding 101: a brand is a promise made to consumers on delivery of functions and services. The number one rule? Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Well, unless you’re only in it for the short-term. Welcome to fad brand – making promises you don’t expect to keep because you know you won’t be around long enough for it to matter.

But wait – Trump’s in office for 4 years. That should matter right? Unfortunately, that was probably not the way voters were looking at things. “The US Presidency is more like a four-year irrevocable service contract,” Davis explains. “Trump’s win is like the gym membership you bought with all the hidden costs you never realized – including exceptionally high penalties for cancellation.”

Ok – so his brand was lacking in substance and the four-year results could pose hazardous to our political, economical and social health. So, what happened?

“Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign was both creatively weak and predictable,” Davis continues. “Pretty much every candidate running against an incumbent tries to make the electorate (read consumers) believe that the previous administration has made life worse.” There’s this push towards fixing and repairing what has been broken. To set things back on track. To fix. To make better. And as predictable as it was – it was a message that resonated.

“Predictable or not, Trump’s campaign spoke to a purpose, and this resonated with a core group of Americans (particularly white, male, blue collar) who had been most impacted by economic and social changes in the past decade,” says Davis. “Trump had a clearly defined market. He became the anti-establishment establishment brand. “In voting for Trump, Americans weren’t voting against the establishment, but rather for a different establishment. Clinton was the establishment brand who lacked real position. Her customer base as a collection of others. The Trump brand defined the marketplace, and Clinton became a follower brand who just reacted to Trump.”

News and media outlets the world over remain shocked at the outcome. Baffled at how Trump’s inane comments and total lack of policy substance both evaded consequences and lacked policy substance. And this situation is perfect for a fad brand to reign supreme.

“The problems facing people today are complex and without quick or easy solutions,” Davis explains. “Clintonites tried to make people understand that, but Trump offered the simplest solution possible: believe in me. To an audience overwhelmed by the scope of global climate change and unable to grasp the subtleties of a new international economic and geopolitical reality, he offered relief. Voters didn’t need to understand how things worked; only that he’d be the one to fix it.”

Looking back, it’s easy to see that Clinton ran a well-articulated, thought-out and experienced cognitive campaign. But Trump, he ran as the televangelist, faith-healer. “A recent Microsoft study found the attention span of today’s millennial was eight seconds,” Davis concludes. “You can’t understand many contemporary issues in eight seconds; but, that’s plenty of time to defer your worries to someone promising they’ll fix everything.”

Perhaps what this election taught us most is that many consumers don’t want to understand – they just want to believe the brand will make things better. Which is easy for a fad brand, but very hard for an authentic brand to deliver.