How Trump Won: Social Media Marketing & Branding

The day before the election, we posted an article called ‘David vs Goliath’, about how small businesses in Thailand and around the world could defeat larger ones by being faster to adapt to the new media landscape – specifically in terms of social media marketing. We had the right title, but the week’s events proved that we had overlooked a much more dramatic case study to prove the point.

Donald Trump’s single-handed demolition of the Republican Party and then the Democratic Party – and his complete victory over economic elites in the country, the entire media system, and all the prevailing forces in the American political system – is a David vs Goliath story if ever there was one. How did it happen?

We published a case study of the US presidential race back in April, and we believe that every word of it remains worth reading and has stood the test of time. Now that the race is over and we have the full picture in view, it’s possible to conduct a complete autopsy. Our aim here isn’t to provide a political profile of the country, or even to take a stance on the substance of the candidates’ policy proposals, but rather to break down how indeed the unlikeliest of Davids wrestled down the ultimate Goliath.

Put simply, the 2016 election came down to branding, messaging and social media performance.

11/8 was an Inside Job

Guardian columnist Thomas Frank voiced much of the world’s collective displeasure in his look back on how the election unfolded: “Why, oh why, did it have to be Hillary Clinton? Yes, she has an impressive resume; yes, she worked hard on the campaign trail. But she was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment. An insider when the country was screaming for an outsider. A technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.”

It was Hillary Clinton because her party leaders had decreed it must be her. Scores of internal emails from within the Democratic Party show collusion against the rising Bernie Sanders during primary season. Digital marketing today needs to be about two-way interaction, and adapting to your audience, or else it doesn’t work. The Clinton campaign instead sought to impose its candidate on the national audience, and everybody saw it happen.

It bears mentioning that the very purpose of a primary is to see who the most viable candidate would be. Sanders did indeed lose, and might have even lost fair and square if he’d had his share of party resources and support, though none of us will ever know.

Bernie Sanders had all the momentum, passion and love that Clinton sorely needed, and it was clear that nominee Clinton would be Trump’s punching bag in a way that Sanders never would. She could help her cause by choosing Sanders as her vice president, or some other very prominent position, to harness his supporters’ energy and assuage their disappointment in his loss. Instead she picked Tim Kaine, the only person more boring than Clinton herself. Mistakes like these can be fatal during a marketing campaign, and come about when crucial steps (such as audience research) are skipped

 

(Michael Moore, November 2016. With Clinton failing to inspire passion among the electorate the way Sanders had, enthusiasm for her was duly faked. Nobody was fooled, apart from those who already wanted to believe.)

With Sanders now out of the picture, Trump’s strengths were perfect for Clinton’s weaknesses. Trump’s genius for getting attention through social media marketing was matched only by Clinton’s ineptitude. Trump was always himself, even to a fault; Clinton seemed to have trouble simulating normal human emotion or interaction, and her social media advisers sometimes seemed like they had just discovered the internet.

Trump’s uninhibited style of attacking his opponents also created a nightmare for Clinton in terms of character. With Clinton embodying the ultimate Washington insider, her 25 years of making deals and compromises was the gift that kept on giving for Trump. In another time period, Clinton’s extensive experience would be her biggest asset. Against Trump, it became her biggest weakness.

Every time she flip-flopped on an issue (there were many), every time she said one thing and did another, every misjudgment, every faux pas, everything that someone associated with her (like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama) did something he could criticize, he would pummel her for it. With no talent for the witty comeback or knockout blow in person or on social media, she just wasn’t nimble enough to parry these attacks, or strong enough to win at his game.

With the real battle for the White House taking place online, the Clinton team needed a branding specialist and a social media manager who could sculpt her message in a way that fitted the unique circumstances. Someone to take the initiative back from Trump. The job of president is the ultimate leadership role, but Clinton’s stance was always reactive, with Trump directing the tone and content of the conversation every step of the way. If she couldn’t handle a single troll, how could she run the world?

Personal enthusiasm for Clinton was never very strong, and election day is all about turnout. With long lines to be expected nationwide, it became hard for her to convince people nationwide to come out and wait for hours just to vote for a candidate they still felt only lukewarm about. Even if she had been a better politician, she may still have lost; it is simply hard to get people excited to vote for someone who has been a Washington insider for as long as they can remember.

The wider lesson will be familiar to marketers far and wide. Getting clicks and likes is easy. The hard part is to inspire your audience to take active steps to buy your product. At the end of the day, sales is all about turning likes into actual conversions. “We’re the lesser evil” was the tag that followed Clinton throughout campaign season. Perhaps it was the truth, but could it measure up to the simple and catchy slogans coming from Trump’s side? At bottom, marketing comes down to one thing only: Could it sell?

The election results provide an unescapable answer, and a conclusive result for her brand and campaign style in a social media world. Despite the entire country – perhaps the world – billing this as the most important election in generations, Clinton received 7 million fewer votes than Obama had in 2012. Those votes did not go to Trump. Trump received 2 million fewer votes than Romney had in 2012.

The votes Hillary Clinton needed to win the White House instead stayed at home. With all her money, power and institutional support, she could simply never reach them.

(In American politics, voters rarely move from one party to another. The difference between elections is usually decided by the number of people on each side who are motivated enough to get out and vote. These numbers aren’t final; many votes in California are yet to be counted. But they do deflate the common argument that pure bigotry across the wider population led to his win.)

 

A Looking-Glass Election: The Joker Becomes Batman

Elsewhere we wrote, “cultural currency is even more valuable than hard currency in the marketing world … A clever idea alone will nowadays go viral online, and stick in the minds of its audience, more successfully than a well-funded but unoriginal traditional campaign.” Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has been making a similar point  all year, but his warnings went largely unheeded.

Make America Great Again. Winning. I alone can fix it. I am your voice. Build the wall. Drain the swamp.

Release the e-mails, Hillary. Cheating Hillary. Lying Hillary. Crooked Hillary. Lock her up. She helped create ISIS. The polls are rigged.

Ethics aside, this is brilliant politicking, as it shows the relentless instinct to imprint mental associations within audiences. The effectiveness of this approach has been under-appreciated (at least, until it was too late); any Google search of ‘Trump quotes’ or ‘Trump campaign quotes’, or any permutation of these even with positive adjectives included, yields page after page of articles openly mocking Trump’s choice of words.

But first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Much of Trump’s real estate career has been built around building his personal brand. His name is on everything he sells. Like Richard Branson, he spent decades selling an image – a lifestyle – in addition to his product. This year, he cut out the middleman. He became the product. The product was an image. An angle. A story. A man who steps forward. To take the punches from the corrupt establishment. From the politically correct elites who don’t care about you. From The System.

What is The System? The System is the source of your frustration. It laid you off as your factory moved abroad, and then explained to you that this was just the new economic reality. The System called you a racist because you weren’t quick enough to denounce police overreach. It stigmatized and shamed you, again and again, because you remain unconvinced by the progressive worldview that took over public discourse. Trump became the lightning rod for everything The System wants to throw at Americans who want the prosperity they were once promised.

The psychology will be familiar to those who read comic books for vicarious pleasure. People who had to absorb those punches themselves, instead wanted a surrogate. Someone to identify with. Someone who would take the hits for us and then hit back twice as hard. Someone who would march into the center of The System and rip the wires out, even if it meant sacrificing himself. He would be attacked and every effort would be made to discredit him, because The System is merciless when defending itself from outsiders. We alone, through voting, could prevent the enemy from winning.

Right or wrong, this is roughly the narrative of many who support Trump. Although he is often painted as a Joker-type figure, his followers would likely see him as the misunderstood and persecuted Batman figure at the end of The Dark Knight. In this framework, it is easy to answer the question of why he would run for president, without altering the text of the film.

Child: Why is he running, dad?

Gordon: Because we have to chase him.

Child: He didn’t do anything wrong.

Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

Well, maybe an orange one.

Orange is the New Black

In total, Clinton spent an average of $11 per vote in the national election, if we take her campaign expenditure and divide it by the number of votes she received. Trump averaged just $5 per vote and won. Clinton raised far more money than Trump overall, and also received nearly unanimous endorsements of influential magazines, newspapers and business leaders nationwide. News outlets also routinely let their favoritism get in the way of accurate coverage.

(Justified distrust in the mainstream media has been increasing. With the media almost entirely in Clinton’s corner, arguments like these conspicuously disappeared for the entire campaign, only to surface again now that the election is over. Partisan media provided ample validation for Trump supporters who were inclined to seek alternative sources of information online.)

For election day evening, the Clinton campaign rented a venue with a glass ceiling. Her presumed win was built up as a symbolic victory for women and girls everywhere, demonstrating the inspiring lesson that anything is truly possible in today’s world. However, for all that Clinton talked about how historic her electoral win would be for women, and how misogynist Trump was in contrast, Clinton’s share of the women’s vote, both in absolute numbers and in terms of percentages, ended up being worse than Obama’s had been.

Many ardent Clinton supporters, refusing to learn from their mistakes, pointed fingers anywhere but at themselves, blaming simple misogyny or racism for Trump’s win. But dozens of countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, have elected female heads of state despite being far less progressive on social issues than America. And America had overcome racism at least enough to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama.

Moreover, other liberal measures did pass in the US this week, including outright legalization of marijuana in 4 more states. Clinton herself was lucky even to be nominated, as she was in a very real sense ‘saved by the bell’ during her fight to stop the meteoric rise of socialist Bernie Sanders. There is simply no way around it: It wasn’t a national rightward turn. The glass ceiling did not stop her. It was just a bad campaign by a candidate the country did not want.

Most of the world had expected a Clinton victory, as did Clinton herself. But life comes at you hard. The country’s first black president will pass the torch to the first orange one. Each was put into office after a fair counting of votes. Both Trump and Clinton made magnanimous speeches calling for unity. Protesters and vandals in the streets, living in the polarized world outside, took a different view. If a harmonious equilibrium is ever to be found and achieved, it will necessarily be through an agreement to listen, really listen, to the grievances and viewpoints of each side.

Trump needs to sell his brand to everyone now, or there will be real conflict in the years ahead. An olive branch needs to be extended from one side and accepted by the other, the sooner the better. Real communication across the aisle in America must develop in good faith, without immediately assuming bad intentions if a message comes across the wrong way. Win-win solutions must be the goal, rather than a hopeless and doomed bipartisan insistence on win-lose.

Marketing today needs to be about two-way interaction, and adapting to your audience, or else it doesn’t work.

Steve Callerame is Senior Writer for Lexicon Business Communications. 

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