Presidential Candidates Need to Step Up Their Branding to Compete With Trump

Experts say that most campaigns so far are 'boring'

President Trump at a rally surrounded by supporters in red Make America Great Again hats.
The red 'Make America great again' hats donned by Trump supporters are sure to spark some sort of feeling in anyone.
Drew Angerer — Getty Images

Red hats took on new meaning in the years leading up to 2016. They seemed to symbolize their own movement and connotation and seeing one now likely makes you feel a certain way. That’s the power of a brand.

Specifically, it’s the power behind President Trump’s 2016 slogan to “Make America Great Again.” As the nation heads into the 2020 presidential election, that’s what challengers are up against. These candidates—and their respective brands—have to come up with a splashy, succinct way to communicate their positions and stand out from Trump and his throng of symbolic red baseball caps.

The challenge this time around isn’t simply going up against the MAGA brand, and it’s not just about shock value. Candidates have to establish a brand that is broad enough to appeal to a wide base of voters. However, the logo, slogan and overall messaging have to be specific enough to energize voters to cast their ballots in November and encouraging enough to impassion them to actually show up on Election Day.

Any successful candidate needs to have five things for a noteworthy brand, including an established bio, a target audience, a series of issues and an edge against competition, said Mark Penn, a former adviser to the Clintons and current chairman and CEO of progressive marketing company MDC Partners. That candidate also needs a slogan, of which Trump’s MAGA is probably “the most remembered slogan of recent times,” he said, which puts those hoping for the White House at a particular crossroads.

“I don’t think there’s any campaign out there that has all five of those,” Penn said of the current candidates. But the field will narrow from 23 candidates as the race gets closer to the primary elections in early voting states. “The critical phase here is going to come out of Iowa and New Hampshire to do the rest of it. No candidate now is anywhere close to it,” he continued.

What Trump has done, said Anjelica Triola, director of marketing at progressive-leaning consultancy Wethos, is allow voters a chance to create their own meaning for “Make America Great Again,” a “fill in the blank.”

“A brand is shorthand for a feeling that you deliver to your consumer, a feeling that you want people to walk away with,” Triola continued. “What Trump has done really well is deliver that feeling to people.”

Candidates so far have avoided going too much against the grain. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., for example, repurposed his message from his last presidential bid, including a reminiscent logo and a slogan of “Not me. Us.” Likewise, Trump himself is using similar language, running on a slogan of “Keep America Great.”

There are a lot of stars, plenty of stripes but not too much deviation from what one might expect from presidential candidates. Branding and marketing experts are quick to settle on one word to describe most of the strategies: “boring.”

“There is no imagination and no innovation,” said branding expert Ilan Geva. “The campaigns are hiring only marketing people, people that have experience in political campaigns. … You should hire people that market controversial products to the world.”

Conversely, Triola said, Democrats should think more about what they want to give voters when crafting their own messages. “Democrats don’t think about what value they’re adding to their audiences,” she said.

Outside of their messaging, candidates also have wide open spaces in two big ways heading into 2020: OTT and social media. Some candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden, have already released OTT ads in Iowa, a category that is almost certainly expected to grow this election, and not just among those running for president. The industry is seeing candidates and issues on state and local levels entering this space, and at earlier points in the election cycle, said Kyle Benn, vp of sales on political ad spend at video ad platform SpotX.

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