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How marketing and traditional simplicity won the day for Trump

Donald Trump

This article was originally published on 9 November, 2016. It has been republished in light of Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the United States of America.

For all the talk of the new era of politics or media, the election of Donald Trump is a true triumph for the traditionalist marketer.

America has rejected Hillary Clinton’s pitch for continuity in favour of Trump’s battle cry for change, a “beautiful thing” that he said "will mean the forgotten men and women [of this country] won’t be forgotten any longer”. And there lies the key to why the former reality TV star’s version of America outmuscled Clinton’s. Effective campaigns are built on emotion, not reason – a validation of what great advertisers have always known.

More worryingly, and with wider marketing implications, Trump's victory signals a victory for polemic over fact and opinion over expertise, adds Simon Francis, a founder member at Campaign Collective a social enterprise marketing agency.

Trump understood that he didn't need KSPs and RTBs; he needed to move people, an idea that first swept into focus during the Brexit debate and is being fuelled by politicians worldwide, a compliant media and the increasing decline of social media into a self-reinforcing echo chamber where people only hear what they want to hear. How else could the man who wants to erect a border wall between his country and Mexico increase the Republican share of Hispanic voters (29%) versus Mitt Romney’s (27%) four years ago?

Donald Trump has proven one thing unequivocally, claims Kev Chesters, Ogilvy & Mather’s chief strategy officer: that brand still matters above everything. "Brand is all he has. If 2012 was the triumph of Nate Silver, 2016 was the triumph of Byron Sharp.

Trump had the brand. He had the agenda. He had the airwaves. It's not a new era for political advertising, argues Chesters. "It's the triumph of the old era. Old tools and old tactics. TV, brand, message. It shows brands matter more than ever. Brand is all he has.”

Much of that value was born from the perception that he was a breath of fresh air, someone who railed against an establishment that many voters felt was numb to their needs. Millions of disillusioned white, blue collar workers believed the billionaire property mogul spoke their language; they see him as a straight talking, no-nonsense leader, whereas Clinton is political royalty, someone who represents the very thing they had come to despise. All the celebrity endorsements in the world can’t offset that discord, which was what Trump exposed to ruthless effect.

The president-elect reached individuals with things they would like to say themselves but “otherwise don't feel able to,” says Jayme Halko, a director at Porter Novelli.

“It's appealing to people because he's taking out all of the bullshit and saying 'this is what I'm going to do for you' and 'this is what's going to change because you hate what’s going on at the minute, and you can't see what's going on six months down the line and I’m giving you a way out – regardless of the fact I'm not giving you any facts or details about how I’m going to do it.' And that's what they want.”

This wasn’t about winning an election, this was about attacking a system that people didn’t trust. Trump knew how to market to a base while Clinton’s approach was slick and elegant — things that middle America doesn’t necessarily empathise with.

Take the ads both used in their campaigns. Hillary’s film around 'is this the president you want for your daughter?' was undoubtedly slick, yet that wasn’t enough to win over 51 per cent of the American population. Trump, on the other hand, had a slightly more tailored message which covered three themes, all around the anti-establishment, anti-globalisation tenor.

He referred to his presidential rival as the “establishment candidate” in one ad. In another, he focused on a woman whose son had been killed by a migrant, using that as a reason why immigration should be controlled, while the other successfully used his advertising to distil a big idea about low skills and depressed wages down into a 30-second ad. Part of Trump’s triumph was that his team could alter his media spend based on messages that spoke most to particular states.

Perhaps the success of political campaigns now is steered by voters looking for someone who is authentic and inspirational rather than a good executive.

Marketing was clearly a piece of the puzzle. Beautiful ads, which Clinton and Droga5 created, were well-received and may make some waves in Cannes, but the simple message of 'change' was what really broke through. It’s that clarity and the consistent refrain of 'Make America Great Again' – cemented into the base – that carried Trump to the White House. African Americans and Hispanics voted — but white voters, many of whom didn’t necessarily admit they were going to vote for Trump, locked in to the position and didn’t waver.

The world is awash with brands built on going against the status quo in this way even if it’s meant not being to everyone’s liking. Look no further then at Paddy Power and BrewDog, two brands built on an open disregard for the industries in which they operate, carefully tuned to a simple but effective media strategy.

Or as Chesters puts it: [Trump] understood that modern "campaigns" are all about getting beyond the attention bribe of paid media and getting yourself into the intersection where PR meets advertising. The best campaigns have always been about "earned media" – getting your 'ad' talked about.”

The ad industry brought out its talent to create work and stunts that were meant to skewer Trump and gain that earned media halo. Goodby’s anti-Trump ad generator.Wieden+Kennedy’s anti-Trump sandwich cart in Portland. The Danish bus with “googly eyes” encouraging people to vote. All noble and notable efforts, but in no way capable of putting even a remote dent in the Trump machine — and likely preaching to the choir, those who had picked Clinton in the first place. Earning eyes is one thing, it’s quite another to breach an impenetrable PR mass like Trump to shift opinion and translate into actual votes.

There is a longer-term question around trust that arises from the fact that Trump’s campaign strategy was not focused on truth as a central theme. There is no regulation around what can be said in a political campaign and candidates will exploit that because it makes a difference.

“That I believe, will have ramifications as we watch both Brexit and the forthcoming Trump presidency unfold,” says Tim Bourne, chairman of the Marketing Agencies Association.

Whether it was promising to change the things that many people are scared to admit they believe or exploiting the perception that American interests have been sacrificed for global ones, he duly mined people’s tendency to vote for action over inaction.

“What was key to success was the ability to deliver simple clear messages that the voters could emotionally relate to," continues Bourne. “A lot of media attention was devoted to the negativity of the campaigns. However, what created momentum and ultimate success was the ability for the successful candidates to communicate with real, simple, clarity that they had the solution to resolving the tension in people’s day-to-day lives.”

“Clinton lost on her message, among other things (likely widespread misogyny). You can’t fight feelings with facts. The Democrats don’t get this basic human truth,” says Margaret Coles, director of quantitative strategy at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

“Trump gave vent to feelings so he wins. Oddly, Clinton's message (‘most prepared’) didn’t give the electorate anything — it was all about her and not her audience. Even the slogan ‘I’m with her!’ was self referential. And yet the ultimate narcissist, Trump, managed to bumble his way to a message (‘Make America Great Again’) that actually promised something to the audience.”

Some media observers have pointed the finger at the likes of Facebook and Twitter for failing to help nurture a more balanced debate around politics.

“I think there's a huge responsibility on Facebook and Twitter to explore ways of exposing people to alternative points of view – because otherwise it just serves to reaffirm, and what does reaffirmation do?” asks Ryan Wain, director of business development at TBWA London, discussing Brexit in the UK.

“It consolidates your position and we've seen it play out and create this huge tear in the fabric of society. You've ended up with [a situation where it’s] ‘are you Trump or are you Clinton?’, and the views are so reinforced and people retreat and retreat. You share things that mean something to you and share with your friends, but what we never do is cross that divide.”

In the closing stages of the election there was almost no discussion of policy, and media of all kinds (not just social) helped amplify a situation in which only the shots at the other party were really presented and discussed.

It’s a worrying precedent for future campaigns that our media systems play into these narratives, and quite how we ever bring politics back to true discussions of policies and facts is anyone’s guess,” says Jerry Daykin, digital partner at Carat.

“I would argue that just about all public social conversations have felt dominated by Trump supporters for the past few weeks so in some ways the result is no surprise; it was just nice to write them off as a noisy minority. Turns out there’s a lot more to say about how mad and frustrated you are, and how despicable the opposition is, than it is possible to keep talking about how much you want to unify and bring people together.

He continues: “The real test will be in the days that now follow. Can the rhetoric die down and people begin to talk to one another once more? Or will social media continue to fuel the cracks and division the long election campaign has exposed. Hidden behind a computer screen, I fear the result will only add fuel to some worrying fires.”

What was inconceivable for many is now a reality for everyone. Trump is now the president-elect thanks to a silent majority that found its voice.

"For all the talk of strategies, brand and who had the tactical upper hand, the legacy of 2016 is a political system which values opinion over expertise, explains Campaign Collective's Francis.

"For politicians, NGOs and businesses, this throws marketing norms up in the air and will require adept handling by communications and marketing professionals in all fields."

Reporting by Seb Joseph, Doug Zanger, Katie McQuater and Rebecca Stewart.

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