Successful US presidential campaigns always present a roadmap for companies looking to understand changes in the consumer landscape as well as innovative communications strategies. Presidential campaigns, after all, are billion dollar startups that spring up to reach consumers in an 18-month winner-take-all sprint. They are not bound to legacy systems, technologies, or mindsets. Indeed, they are incentivized to experiment and take risks.
Smart companies can bypass the millions of dollars campaigns spend on research and on perfecting communications tactics—and just borrow from what worked.
The Lessons from 2016
Shock sold. Donald Trump repeatedly challenged conventional wisdom by expressing views that were far outside the mainstream, and by acting in ways that other presidential candidates never had before. While many were turned off, others tuned in, and found refreshing truth-telling. And should we have been surprised by his success? For years, free-wheeling talk radio and late night comedy shows have been quietly replacing traditional outlets as a trusted source of news. Could your brand challenge the norms within its industry in ways that are seen as more “real”?
Showing up matters. Technology has enabled candidates—and brands—to engage with consumers in more and more ways, but still, being in front of your customer matters. Maybe even more so in today’s virtual world. Trump was a more frenetic campaigner than Hillary Clinton, doing more events in critical battleground states.
Content is king. Trump was able to dominate news cycle after news cycle in part because he knew how to feed the beast. He didn’t serve up the usual staid policy addresses and photo ops. He made news. Day in and day out. He did it often by being provocative, but he drove the narrative and kept the media coming back for more—and published most of it himself on social media. In today’s environment, consumers are only episodically engaging. Are you publishing with enough frequency that you’ll catch them when they do check in?
TV advertising is less influential. Hillary Clinton and her allies spent more than $1 billion, most of it on expensive television advertising. Team Trump spent half that. Trump was also dramatically outspent by Jeb Bush and his other Republican opponents. Yet he showed—definitively—in both instances that consumers are discounting what you say about yourself, especially on TV.
Media relations is changing, but vitally important. If consumers discount what you say about yourself, then they are increasingly looking to the media to be the referee and give them impartial context. Because of some of the factors noted above, Trump was the beneficiary of more than $2 billion in free media during the campaign. And most people are getting their news on Facebook or via Apple News on their phones. But these, for the most part, were still stories written by reporters at major outlets. The delivery of the news is changing, but you cannot overdo it when it comes to pitching, placing stories, and managing relationships with reporters.
It should be noted that in the final three months of the campaign, fake news stories and hyper-partisan blog posts were shared more frequently on Facebook than major mainstream outlets. This is not a strategy brands should adopt, but one they should be aware of. If Facebook doesn’t figure out a way to filter out fake news, this trend represents a major threat to your brand.
A year or two from now, we will all be talking about corporate brands that came out of nowhere, or regained lost relevance. We will marvel at how they took advantage of shifting tectonic plates and moved before others did. Will your brand be one of them?