They were all wrong. The political pundit class remains somewhat shocked at the performance of two candidates in the 2016 Presidential primaries that no one else gave a chance, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
The talking heads are mystified enough to stumble through explanations about how these candidates are overperforming – leading, in Trump’s case – in the polls. However, these candidates are doing well by using some reliable marketing strategies that these political professionals should be familiar with, branding, exploiting free media and exploiting strong numbers in the “name recognition” category. Their successes in these categories extend to most methods of reaching potential voters, even SEO tactics.
In July of 2015, Gallup performed a survey of likely Republicans to test the name recognition of all the GOP candidates. Governor Jeb Bush polled high as expected, yet Donald Trump polled the highest. 92% said they were familiar with Trump. Two Vanderbilt University political scientists showed in a controlled experiment that high name recognition alone can give a candidate a 13-point boost in support. Trump started with an advantage over all other candidates in this category, and it is likely that his name recognition as a pop icon and famous face on TV gave him a boost over the other relative unknowns in the race.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led Senator Bernie Sanders by a wide margin in the polls at the same time as the Politico survey results appeared. A March 2015 poll by CNN found that only 1% of those surveyed had never heard of the former First Lady. In April, after Sanders announced, 53% were unfamiliar with him or his positions.
Trump took advantage of his high name recognition as the race progressed. This was shocking not only because he was a relative political neophyte, he also had a very high unfavorability rating. In the Gallup poll, 36% of the Republicans surveyed held an unfavorable opinion of him. In a crowded field, such a high number would ordinarily be tough to overcome, yet not for Trump.
The Trump brand was well established when he decided to announce his candidacy for President. His finger-pointing trademark catch phrase, “You’re Fired,” and his Manhattanite accent only emphasized his appearance as a tough-minded businessperson. With towers bearing his name all across New York City and a former model as his spouse, he exudes an American ideal of success.
His brand extends beyond simply being rich and loud. He stays on message, and his consistency of demeanor, speech patterns and even appearance (the hair!) helps to make him a memorable figure.
We’ve seen the brash Trump on television; however, it was tied to entertainment. He rarely, if ever, had a public feud where he had to confront a business associate in public or make sweeping statements about a group of people as he has in the 2016 primaries. Ironically, his success in bare-knuckle politics is hurting his business brand according to a survey by BAV Consulting. The association of the Trump brand with the glamorous life has diminished as his brand morphs from Trump the business success to Trump the political animal.
For an unwavering third of the Republican voting population, Trump’s brand is attractive. His brand says he will talk tough to his world leader peers, if elected, and has the business acumen to grow the economy.
In 2007, the press marveled at Barack Obama’s reach into the first-time voter, that hard-to-motivate voter between 18 and 29-years old. There were several assumptions made regarding how he accomplished the feat. “He used the Internet!” they exclaimed, and Obama did raise unprecedented funds and reached thousands via social media. Yet without his brand – his message of hope enshrined in the Shepard Fairey poster – the message may have fallen on disinterested eyeballs.
Obama rode a wave of hope, yet he and his campaign had a geek appeal. He was like a sleek Apple product, intellectual and capable. Senator Sanders is anything but sleek, yet he appeals to a similar mindset, a bare bones LINUX project, removed from the mainstream and not pretty, but it works “pretty good.” Moreover, it’s utilitarian. That’s the Sanders brand. His campaign icon is simple, just his name and some lines. His website’s opening page is decorated with the faces of hundreds. He speaks of the possibility of what can happen, much like Obama’s candidacy of hope.
The best things in life are free
Without proper outreach, branding and messaging are worthless. Cash strapped, low-budget campaigns can’t rely on big donors to make it rain and open the floodgates of TV advertisements during the Super Bowl. They have to exploit cheap, yet effective, modes of communication to get their message out, to expose their brand to the public.
The time-tested method of publicity on the cheap is to use the news media to your own ends. Donald Trump has mastered the art before entering politics. He created events. He held opening galas that drew the attention of the press. He’s continuing to utilize this tactic as a candidate, using his skill at bombast to pique interest in what would otherwise be just another stump speech for any other candidate. Now, every press avail is a big event, because Trump just might say something to make headlines.
If Trump were a movie producer, he’d probably be very successful. He’s what is known in the film industry as “good in a room;” he can make his projects seem like the most exciting proposition ever. That’s what he’s doing when he talks policy. Reporters and pundits want him to be specific; he realizes he doesn’t have to. He’s making a pitch to the Republican voter, saying “This is going to be the greatest thing we’ve ever done,” whether it’s building a wall or destroying Isis. It’s how he’s been able to convince investors and banks to give him money to build his empire, and it is how he’s convincing voters to support him by conveying the probability of success.
Social media less a factor in 2016
While Trump uses social media to reach out personally, hammering out tweets with alarming speed, it’s been inconsequential in securing his support. Politicians are trying to utilize the Internet to reach out to young voters, especially the Republicans, who lag in support from the 18-29 Internet heavy user cohort. Those savvy users are used to deftly avoiding anything that appears to solicit their support or finances. The candidates’ use of Snapchat and such platforms are on par with Obama’s use of Facebook in 2007, but with diminishing returns. The value of an app like Snapchat is less to convince voters than to draw media attention to the fact the campaign is doing something interesting or newsworthy.
In the ’08 and to a lesser degree in the ’12 election cycles, the Internet was a major player in the campaigns, but for different reasons. Obama used Facebook and his Internet sites to mobilize GOTV efforts and raise money. In the reelection campaign, social media was more a messaging tool.
Bernie Sanders has benefited most from the Internet, but through passive means rather than outreach. The relative unknown Senator when he entered the race is one of the most searched for candidates in this campaign, especially after his debates with Clinton. People want to learn about him and his position in the rankings is a good indicator of interest in his campaign.
The search engine Senator
Fascinatingly, the Sanders microsites appear in the top of search results even when looking for general voter information. The Sanders main site includes information on how to vote in primary elections and other info voters are searching for. Moreover, his supporters share these sites in large numbers, boosting the rankings of Sanders’ pages. The Sanders SEO team has a good grasp on how to utilize search results to their benefit, and their passionate supporters only bolster their efforts.
What we can learn from the marketing of candidates
Trump, like Jobs, like Obama, may be a unique phenomenon in their ability to draw the world’s attention. Yet, someone like the professorial Sanders shows that one doesn’t have to be a lightning rod to attract sparks.
- Boosting name recognition is important.
- Be aware of your brand. Make sure your brand stays consistent with its message within the target group.
- Your message should include potential positive outcomes from supporting your brand rather than bashing competitors.
- The brand and the message don’t have to be flashy to make an impact.
- Using free media can be an invaluable asset even if your marketing budget is large. Create an expectation that every announcement will be newsworthy, and the press will pay attention more often than you’d expect.
- Creating passionate support for your brand can pay dividends. The true believers will help promote your brand without you asking.
5 Star Writer Mark M is journalist with 14 years’ print experience, web writing and the law.