As presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make their last-minute pushes for votes before the Nov. 8 election, an Olin Business School faculty member said the tight race boils down, in part, to poor political branding practices.
“Corporate managers know that in order to sell a product, you have to brand it,” said Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing at Olin Business School. “Branding means creating a promise for the product and infusing every customer interaction with that meaning. Branding is critically important not just in business, but in politics, too. However, the Democrats chose not to brand Hillary Clinton in this election.”
Thomadsen, whose research focuses on marketing management and strategy, said Clinton’s camp failed to rise to the branding challenge: Instead of giving her a clear, consistent message, it provided messages that were muddled and scattered. Thomadsen contrasted that with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, noting his campaign material constantly backs up that slogan.
“Trump’s branding is clear,” said Thomadsen. “His voters know why they are voting for him. Clinton, in contrast, has not branded herself. A brand must be built by repeating your message and framing each talking point within that message. At times, Clinton has tried to create a brand with slogans such as ‘Stronger Together,’ however the execution failed to be consistent. Go to hillaryclinton.com and you might see a video entitled ‘When you’re 27 million strong.’ However, there are also lots of messages on other themes. There is no slogan anywhere on that page that creates a common message across the material. That is not a brand.”
Thomadsen also noted that Clinton’s campaign could have pivoted and tried to brand Trump in a negative way, but here again it never stuck on a consistent theme. While Clinton certainly critiqued Trump, Thomadsen maintained that she didn’t create a lasting branding framework to effectively sway over voters.
“Perhaps they felt there were too many potential messages,” he explained. “Should they focus on the mistreatment of women? On his lies? On his financial dealings? Clinton often critiqued Trump, but her campaign didn’t create a lasting framework with which to string together each of Trump’s scandals. This was a lost branding opportunity for the campaign.
“Ultimately, Hillary Clinton didn’t effectively brand herself, so Trump did it for her,” Thomadsen continued. “Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ terminology is ubiquitous. In the absence of any coordinated message against this, that brand has stuck.”
Guest blogger: Erika Ebsworth-Goold