How Branding Lost Hillary the Election


As an American, I have a lot of thoughts about what has happened in the past 24 hours. As a brand strategy professional, I have a lot of thoughts about what has happened over the past 24 months that has led us to where we stand today.

Donald J. Trump, real-estate baron, game-show host, unrepentant groper of women, is now the president-elect of the United States of America. In two months, he will become the 45th President of the United States.

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton is an experienced and internationally respected politician with a remarkable career as a change-maker and a champion for human rights, in America and across the globe. She is a very smart, very well educated and very successful woman who knows how to get things done in American politics.

But she lost, because she’s terrible at marketing.

Mistake #1 – The Process Doesn’t Sell

Donald Trump’s candidacy has shown American politicians what American marketeers have known for decades: never sell the process — sell the results.

You don’t sell weight-loss pills by talking about the terrible abdominal cramping, diarrhea and night-sweats you will suffer through: you sell weight-loss pills by talking how terrific you’ll look in that little black dress.

All presidential candidates have the same message: I’m the one who can deliver the America you want. But while Hillary focused on the policies, strategies and plans that she would implement to make that possible — and demonstrated her capabilities to deliver on those plans — Donald Trump struck right to the heart of the matter. “We’re going to make America great again,” he said, and who cares about the details?

Really, no one cares about the details.

Mistake #2 – Lead with a Vision, Not a Mandate

What Donald had, and what Hillary did not, was a vision that captured people’s imagination. By asking voters to “make America great again,” he was asking us to imagine a future where their fantasies could become a reality. Where snowdrifts are always piled 6 feet high on Christmas, and where an English major could get a job anywhere.

With this vision, Trump has accomplished the dream of anyone who has ever worked in marketing: by tapping into the id of the nation’s voters, he now owns a word: “Great.”

No matter how much Hillary really did want to make things better for all Americans, she could never say that she “wanted to make America great.” That aspirational adjective was struck out of her campaign rhetoric entirely.

Instead, Hillary was struggling to inspire voters with “Stronger Together.”  First, there is nothing uplifting about this.  During the Boston Marathon bombings, the city adopted the slogan, “Boston Strong.” Other cities have picked up the slogan in recent years. We have had “Dallas Strong” in the wake of the police shootings there, and “Orlando Strong” after the nightclub massacre in that city. In civic settings, “strong” harkens to tragedy.

And for the average lazy American, this just sounds like a lot of work. You’re telling me I have to lift weights and bring something to the potluck? This other guy’s telling me I can have pizza and lose 15 pounds just by sitting on my couch.

And, unlike “make America great again,” this slogan has an end-date. I assume she is telling me that we need to come together as a country. Okay, done. Now what?

Mistake #3 – Stopping at the Brand

The Clinton campaign launched with a brilliant logo. Working with a global brand and design firm, she unveiled an identity that was a marked shift from her 2008 brand; that had a clear visual signal pointing towards that future; appealed to millennials for its simplicity; distanced herself from the sometimes fractious “Clinton” family name; and lent itself incredibly well to social media icons and badges.

But that is where the marketing seemed to stop. Where was this future-forward woman in the campaign rhetoric? Hillary Clinton would have been the President to ring in 2020, a year has come to symbolize the gateway to the future for generations of Americans. And yet she utterly failed to grasp this opportunity to ignite our collective vision.

The identity did spawn a viral hashtag. #imwithher was used by millions of people over the past two years to show support for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But Hillary herself did not have a message like this: Hillary couldn’t tweet #imwithher. She shut herself out of one her own best moments.

Again, contrast this with Trump. For most of the campaign, Trump used a generic, serif, red-white-and-blue TRUMP logo. But over the summer, Trump released a very short-lived logo to mark the start of the general election. An attempt to combine the Trump and Pence, the logo failed miserably and was promptly replaced. Yet it had zero effect on his campaign, because the messaging was already there.

A brand does not succeed because it achieves a brilliant visual trick. Consistent messaging and storytelling is required to make the brand stick in people’s minds. The identity is the key to the door, not the room itself.

Hello, 2020!

The wonderful thing about America is that, whatever happens, we get back to work and go through this process again every four years. As we prepare for the next election cycle, we can all stand to learn a few things from Trump:

  1. Tell us where you will take us. Not how we will get there.
  2. Don’t tell us what to do. Ask us to image how it can be.
  3. Talk to us. Don’t just expect us to understand.

Campaign managers, please take note. We have four more years to get this right.


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