Into the unknown

It is one thing to want to win. It’s another thing altogether to want the prize.

But however the practicalities of the next four years in a Trump presidency play out, as America and the world digests the outcome of the most remarkable election in the history of the Republic, there will be plenty of post-mortems over coming weeks and months.

And from a marketing perspective there will undoubtedly be much to get our heads around when thinking about the implications for this and future campaigns – both in politics and business.

Do traditional ads work any more? How reliable is our understanding of consumer – or voter – sentiment? And how much can we really “know” about what a target audience wants? Even with trying to sell what turned out to be two largely unappealing products, their respective marketing approaches left many questions to be answered.

Back in September, Ad Age’s astute columnist Simon Dumenco outlined some of the reasons why the most unpredictable outcome can never be ruled out.

But what other lessons can we learn from what we’ve just witnessed?

Voters appeared to prefer an outsider from the corporate world – regardless of their personal track record – to a long-established political insider; perhaps choosing the projection of change over more of the same. While this has deep implications for how politics will be structured in the future, the importance of credibility and confidence – and managed expectations – is perhaps even more significant.

Prof John Quelch of Harvard Business School writes that the Trump playbook offers six lessons “to beat the odds and overcome powerful competitors.”

He says (and I’m paraphrasing a longer, interesting read that sums up the essence of much of the campaign):

  • Give consumers a job. The most successful brands also allow their consumers to co-create brand meaning. “Let’s Make America Great Again” is an inclusive call to arms.
  • Show the past as prologue. For millions of Americans in the rust belt, the good old days really existed and they voted to bring them back.
  • Pursue forgotten consumers. Good marketers always know how to balance new customer acquisition with customer retention.
  • Sizzle beats steak. Clinton’s brand was always going to beat Trump on the steak of experience and policy knowledge, but Trump’s campaign persona and his contract with the American voter offered more sizzle.
  • Build enthusiasm. Good marketers know that brand enthusiasm rings the cash register. It did for Trump, but not for Clinton.
  • Close the sale. People want to back a brand that other people similar to them see as a winner. That’s when a brand becomes a movement.

And branding will likely pervade all aspects of the Trump presidency, from issues surrounding his children’s control of his business empire to his daughter attempting to market the jewellery she wore in the first 60 Minutes TV interview after her father’s victory.

Already, there have been online efforts to organise boycotts of companies that support Trump while other opportunist businesses, such as British Airways, were using the occasion for a spot of flash marketing on Twitter.


For the Clinton camp, dealing with factors beyond their control – from WikiLeaks stories to the FBI’s interventions or the increasingly important online issue of the proliferation of “fake news” – undoubtedly created a unique set of difficulties and will force campaigns to address how to respond when someone deliberately interferes with your message.

Where to begin with the performance of the polls? The most crucial snapshots of information about public opinion and consumer sentiment proved not just unreliable, but – in the case of the data-driven Clinton campaign’s reliance on analytics – arguably fatal.

Do ads matter?

I’ve written about this a lot in this column, from the primary campaign to the end of the general. Certainly, Trump’s “free media” bonanza skewed the playing field when it comes to judging the efficacy of political advertising over the past year.

But there were definitely some great spots. Here are the 10 most notable ads of the campaign, according to Time.

These I personally think were the most effective – two on-target attack ads and an uplifting spot that I reckon is the best I’ve seen for a long while.

(It’s maybe unfair of me to include this third one, since it was a primary ad and, of course, we’ll never know how the Sanders campaign might have got down and dirty in the general).

Finally, a couple of thoughts for both sides, which apply as much to business as to politics:

After your team wins, it’s probably best not to admit too readily that what some people thought was a campaign promise was just a “device”.

After your team loses, don’t publicly blame everyone except yourselves.

Even worse, don’t do this.

In all, it’s probably appropriate that after the most unpredictable election for generations, we’re heading into an uncertain transition period
with genuinely few clues to how the incoming administration might govern, or which pieces of campaign rhetoric it might actually translate into legislative priorities.

Will Trump turn out to be a different President than he was a candidate? One thing is for certain, he understood television, social media and showmanship better than any candidate to date – certainly better than Clinton.

In what was effectively a personality contest, it worked for him and there seems little incentive to change his way of interacting with the American people.

And, of course, Washington itself will be changing, in more ways than one.

It will, therefore, likely be a while before we know whether the folks who bought the ticket actually got a bargain or will end up with a hangover and a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Hold on to something.


FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one was easily the most fascinating of them all. He has been writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies. This is his final election column.