The U.S. election campaign was a powerful lesson in using emotion to sell a brand
The presidential campaign of Donald Trump offers many lessons. The idea that Trump has something to teach marketers may seem profoundly distasteful at first blush: “Bob’s Panini House—if you hate and fear religious and ethnic minorities, we have the sandwich for you!”
But the Trump campaign has forcefully underscored key elements of consumer decision-making: branding and emotion.
“Although the toxic nature of Donald Trump’s rhetoric should alarm us all, when he is on message there is no questioning the effectiveness of his communication,” says James Hoggan of the PR firm James Hoggan & Associates. “Trump offers a lesson on how emotional dialogue can shape public opinion in the face of significant obstacles.”
Witness the Brexit vote last June. If there was ever a British municipality that could be said to benefit from European Union membership, it was Cornwall, England. As a relatively low-income community, Cornwall was the recipient of tens of millions of pounds’ worth of annual EU subsidies. On referendum day, the good people of Cornwall said, “Enough with this windfall!” and voted decisively to leave the EU (followed almost immediately by a collective bleat from locals that the British government should reimburse them for the subsidies they had just voted to kill). Voters with obvious logical reasons to protect their own interests responded instead to a different impulse. “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work,” Brexit supporter Arron Banks told The Independent a week after the referendum. “You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
Contrary to the widely held assumption that Trump supporters are reacting to damaging effects of free trade, a Gallup analysis showed that his greatest support is found in regions that have not been unduly affected by cheap imports or job competition from immigrants. Practical considerations, it seems, have little to do with Trump’s appeal. Trump’s reliable stream of outrages unexpectedly created a solid brand: Trump the Truth-Teller. Trump tells it like it is, his followers insist.
“Trump is also skilled at tribal marketing,” Hoggan says, “which turns his audience into a team that comes to interpret the world though his lens: ‘If you believe this, you are one of us; if you don’t, you are one of them.’ This can shut down open-minded thinking, but building a community that sticks together can also be a positive thing that builds customer loyalty and healthy communities.”
When it comes to effective branding, facts, while not exactly harmful, are not particularly useful either. Almost every pickup truck ad aired today mentions fuel efficiency ratings. But they don't hire Sam Elliott to narrate in his trademark tobacco-chewing cowpoke drawl because they expect miles-per-gallon to clinch the sale. It’s all about who that truck will let you become. Similarly, I have absolutely no need for U.S. car insurance and yet I love Geico. I have bonded with that little gecko mascot and his absurd English accent. Talking geckos—it is painful for me to acknowledge this—are not reliable indicators of tangible consumer benefit. It just means that smart marketers know where the emphasis should be placed. And it’s not on product features.
Although branding may be about making emotional connections, emotion does not always lead us astray. The American Psychological Association reported on a study of used car shoppers who made decisions based on feelings more than facts, and vice versa. The results suggested that in certain situations, emotional decision-making led to superior choices, in part because there were only so many factors the conscious brain could process at once. To some degree, intuition may represent a level of analysis not evident to the conscious mind.
As for Trump, the fact that people like me dislike him so much only increases his appeal. In his recent book Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes the unabashed contempt frequently directed at poor Appalachians like his family and says it inspires a powerful resentment in its targets. Supporting Trump means offering up an enthusiastic middle finger to the elites and their superior attitudes. Well, good news—it worked. I’m horrified. Feel free to stop anytime.