Three brand lessons from the US presidential election

Jim Mason is executive director of strategy and insight for Razorfish London

The 2016 US presidential election is racing to its conclusion, and we will know the winner in a matter of weeks. This election cycle has unquestionably been unlike any other in modern US history, and scholars will study it for years to come to identify lessons for future candidates. But I’m currently more intrigued by the learnings brands can take away from the election.

I believe there are three lessons for brands from this election cycle.

1 Brands can find a voice in the political environment

The presidential debates have become Super Bowl-level commercial events. The first presidential debate logged historic ratings – more Americans watched it than any previous presidential debate in history. The viewership numbers approached Super Bowl levels, and so did the advertising. This is the first time I can remember brands pulling out all the stops and they created fantastic advertising specifically focused around this event. Audi and Tecate are two brands in particular that created savvy ads with just the right tone for their core audiences.

Tecate brought humour and brotherhood to the forefront with its spoof on Trump’s proposed wall by introducing its own Beer Wall, which serves to unite people by giving them a place to drink beer together. I particularly love the media placements for the ad: Univision and Fox News.

Audi created a well staged and meticulously crafted spot asking you to “choose the next driver wisely.”

These brands are clear winners in this election cycle, and I expect we’ll begin to see more brands find ways to ride the zeitgeist in the next election instead of staying on the sidelines as in years past.

2. Brands take the high road when brought into the limelight not on their terms

In 2016, brands became unwilling participants in the national conversation. While some brands intentionally sought to capitalise on the political climate, others were thrust unwillingly and unexpectedly into the spotlight. In most instances, these brands were uncomfortable with the associations and distanced themselves from the candidates and their positions.

The candy makers seemed to feel the brunt of the pain with Skittles being compared to refugees and Tic Tacs linked to Trump's interactions with women. I’m particularly impressed with Skittles’ measured and thoughtful response that they clearly did not want to be misinterpreted as marketing: "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy."

Given the focus on real-time marketing over the past few years, it is refreshing to see restraint instead of a brand going for a humorous and headline-grabbing response. I think we can expect to see more brands following the lead of Skittles and Tic Tacs and taking the high ground when these controversies arise.

3. Maintain a healthy balance across paid, earned, and owned channels

Given the advertising arms race that defined the 2012 presidential election, it is shocking that one of the major candidates has eschewed traditional television advertising. Donald Trump’s relationship with the media and how it impacts his communication channels is truly fascinating. He knows he can make headlines with brash statements, so he leverages the media for free publicity instead of spending on traditional advertising.

Trump simply does not spend on paid media. I find AdAge’s visualisation of TV and radio booked spend staggering.

Instead, Trump relies on social media channels to communicate and amplify his message. When he issued an apology for his comments on a 2005 Access Hollywood tape, Trump did not leverage traditional media; instead, he broadcast on Facebook Live. Lyndon Morant has a nice opinion piece on the details of Trump’s social media usage and calculates that Trump posts an average of 25 pieces of content per day.

However, I believe Trump made a strategic error by not spending more on TV advertising. He is notorious for going off message, and the structure of a traditional TV spot would have reinforced his campaign messaging. Trump has established an effective social media presence, but he has lost the balance across paid, earned and owned channels. These channels should work to reinforce each other, and they are collectively stronger when utilised in a coordinated fashion.

Similarly, brands must keep the three elements of paid, earned, and owned in balance. That’s an important lesson for brands to remember if they want to win with consumers and remain strong for the next four years.

Jim Mason is executive director of strategy and insight for Razorfish London

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