WashU Expert: It’s all in the brand


Effective campaign branding may have made the winning difference for Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election. Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing at Olin Business School takes a closer look at how the messaging may have affected the election outcome.

  • The importance of branding: “Branding is a central concept in business. Companies build products but also a promise of what the product stands for; a brand is the embodiment of that promise. Once a company defines its brand, it must make sure to convey that promise through every action it takes, or else consumers become uncertain what the product stands for. Once a company knows its branding, its tactical decisions, such as what product features to offer and how to promote its product, become almost automatic. The same is true about political campaigns. Ultimately, branding is a big part of the story of how the Democrats lost this election.”
  • The win: “Trump rode the support of many of the disenfranchised voters through his branding of ‘Make America Great Again.’ That message was always present in his campaign, and even though he laid out very few policy details, it gave a clear message to his voters about why they should vote for him. Whether it was health care, the economy or ISIL, the specifics were thin but the message was that we would do what makes things great.”
  • The loss: “Clinton, on the other hand, never branded herself. Sure, there were slogans such as ‘Stronger Together.’ However, that slogan was not backed up by a constant stream of branding. If you went onto HillaryClinton.com in the days before the election, you saw a video about ‘When you’re 27 million strong.’ However, you also saw many other messages on the page; the slogan ‘Stronger Together’ was nowhere on the webpage until just before the election itself. This is emblematic of Clinton’s messaging on the campaign trail, which provided different messages each day, leaving no lasting framework for what she stood for.”
  • Sanders’ strategy: “Bernie Sanders likely would have done better. The convention among establishment Democrats is that Sanders’ message was too liberal, so he would have had a harder time gaining a victory. However, voters choose whole products rather than the sum of positions. For example, in 2000, George W. Bush’s stance on issues were unpopular, but people liked him more than Al Gore. Sanders had a clearly defined promise that I think would have spoken to a wide swath of the population. Certainly, he was speaking to the working class in a way that Clinton did not. Clinton supporters might argue that her policies would be good for the working class. That misses the point. Her campaign was not centered on promises to make things better for the working class – it was not part of an overarching framework – so that message was never heard even if she always said the right things when discussing the topic.”
  • Democrats need to brand: “The campaigning is done, but the need for a strong America remains. Now is the time we need the other leaders of the Democratic party to step up and present a vision for America. When they do, branding will be as important as ever – after all, with the Republicans holding all branches of government, their voice is all the Democrats have. Similarly, they will have to be vigilant to counteract brands that the Republicans build that will hurt the U.S. if they go unchecked. Let’s hope the campaign teaches them some lessons on how to use it.”

Thomadsen joined Olin in 2013; his research focuses on marketing management and strategy.

 Editor’s note: Members of the media interested in interviewing Thomadsen can reach him via email at thomadsen@wustl.edu or by phone at 314-935-3573.

Read more from our experts on Election 2016.

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