What Do Trump and Bernie Have in Common? Strong Branding.

By Russ Stoddard / Mar 14, 2016

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Here's what I love about this year's presidential campaign—it offers key lessons about the value of a strong brand.

Don't get me wrong, there’s much to dislike about the campaign—and dislike is a pretty weak word—but that’s all being covered and played out ad nauseam.

So let’s keep this about the power of branding.

And purpose. More about this later.

Campaign Bernie Trump

Brands with Character

On branding: Here’s where the Republican and Democratic outliers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, get it right.

This campaign really is about Trump’s brand marketing ability and Sanders’ brand image.

Most candidates at this level are, or should be, pretty good at clarity of message and consistency of delivery, the first two C’s of successful branding. They have plenty of hired guns to help them with this.

Where The Donald and Bernie really strike a chord this go round, and where others seem to miss, is on the emotional fabric of the third C of branding, “character.”

Successful brands differentiate through character, and it’s no different with political candidates.

Trump Steaks Bernie Rally

It’s no wonder Trump shines here. After all, he is a brand. Or many, many hugely successful brands, as he’ll be the first to remind you. (Steak, anyone?) This guy gets how to stand out and differentiate. Trump’s brand message? He test markets outlandish statements, gets a response, gauges their resonance, then rides the ones that are winners. And the others? Well, we all know how The Donald feels about losers.

Bernie gets it, too. Sanders’ brand image comes across as genuine, from the heart, passionate, and driven. It’s not about him—it’s about a movement.

This is buttressed by his singular clarity of message: It’s all about Wall Street. Anyone political candidate who specifically says they’re dangerous, as in dangerous to Wall Street, is telling it like it is. No equivocating.

Now you might not like their character, but these candidates have it in spades—and that’s what successful brands do. They create character that’s compelling to their target audiences. It’s not about appealing to everyone, mind you, but creating that brand love with the segment of the market you’ve targeted.

In this campaign, Trump and Sanders tell it like it is and appear far more transparent than the other candidates, who generally come across as scripted, unoriginal, disingenuous, or perhaps the worst sin of all, bland. That’s risky territory for candidates and companies both.

Fueling Brand Energy

Next up on the brand front: Energy.

People love energy. We feed off it. From the sun, from food, from the people who enter our personal orbits.

Successful brands have energy. That’s what attracts people to a brand beyond the features and benefits of its products. Trump certainly possesses energy, and he’s got a street fighter’s sensibility of jujitsu in how to use it against his opponents. Think about how he pigeonholed poor Jeb Bush as a “low-energy individual” and doomed Bush’s campaign in one simple sound bite.

Donald Trump on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" discussing low-energy Jeb Bush:

Bernie Sanders compilation video:

Feel the Bern? That’s all about energy. What drives Sanders’ brand among Millennials? Energy fueled by a youthful, passionate pitch delivered by a 74-year-old man. While Hillary Clinton appears as though she can’t wait until the primaries are over, Sanders seems to gain strength from every opportunity to deliver his message, whether he’s trailing or not. That’s what good brands do—gain strength and momentum by increasing their wattage.

The Power of Purpose

And at last, on purpose: 

Humans gravitate toward meaning. It’s deeply embedded in our DNA. So it’s funny to see the establishment—the political parties, big-money donors, and PACs—react to voters’ quest for meaning and purpose, by denying their validity. People are angry, fed up with the status quo, and are looking for leaders with a sense of shared purpose who can give voice to these feelings, unfettered by the financial and legacy ties that bind. The political parties, instead of using this opportunity for reinvention, are swimming against the current. And their strokes don’t look very pretty.

They simply don’t get it.

We’re seeing this play out in the business world as well, though the battle isn’t as concentrated as it is in a time-bound and very public political campaign where everyone has something at stake.

When Values Become Vanilla

Insights that incite.

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  • Giant, monolithic companies appear gobsmacked by the digital genie that escaped its bottle and transferred power from brands to customers. Coinciding with this is peoples’ desire to find meaning in their relationships, even those that are commercial. People—let’s not call them consumers here—are looking for companies they can trust, who share their personal values, and who don’t try to slather on their self-interested marketing speak when all the people want is the real deal. 

    People have always wanted brands with character. Today, they also want companies with purpose. Companies that are transparent and that have intentional values that are original and acted upon—not the meaningless values that litter corporate walls on poorly designed motivational posters. You know the type of generic, mind-numbing corporate values I’m talking about: “excellence,” “respect,” “honesty.”

    Crafted in boardrooms (or by consultants) and harrumphed over, these values are meaningless. Employees don’t buy that crap, and neither does the buying public.

    (Did you know the giant advertising company WPP and Shell share the same values: honesty, integrity, and respect for people? Brand consultant Nick Liddell of The Clearing calls these “identikit” values, part of a clever deconstruction of generic brand values you can read here.)

    Disruptive Brand Marketing

    People are looking for companies that are trying to be part of a solution, rather than perpetuating the problem through their own self-absorbed, corporate status quo. In this mindset, old-line companies and the two major political parties are in lockstep. 

    A growing class of customers—just like voters—wants to align personal values with purchasing power. And in the workplace, people are seeking out the same type of company for employment; values are becoming an increasingly important screen for workers in their job search.

    It’s a funny thing; neither of the two presidential candidates discussed here—or any of this campaign’s contenders—have advocated for staying the course and adhering to the status quo. They all want change—or their version of change, of course. They espouse values and purpose, but it comes across as so much talk when what people really want is originality not formula, commitment to bold action not platitudes.

    Our political system, much like a giant corporation, moves slowly. The digital revolution, with its meteoric customer feedback for brands on social media or 50 million $1 donations harvested via sophisticated email appeals, is a threat to both political and corporate institutions. The asteroids are pummeling Earth, and the dinosaurs simply don’t know how to handle it.

    People value character, purpose, and meaning, especially in times of tumult and uncertainty. I believe our world is entering a period of significant change brought on by a shifting power dynamic—and I’m fairly certain the institutions will respond to it, even if it means they’re dragged into it by voters in the polling booths and dollars at the cash register.

    Insights that incite.

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    Russ Stoddard

    Russ started Oliver Russell in 1991. He’s committed his career (nearly 30 years) to social responsibility, first inside the corporate world and then as an entrepreneur who’s started four companies and five nonprofit causes. His creative work has been honored with local, regional, and national creative awards. These days, Russ focuses on brand strategy for clients, spreading the Certified B Corp love, and connecting kindred spirits to multiply social impact.

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