Donald Trump represents a new kind of political phenomenon, one where the distinction between a commercial brand and a political one has evaporated. As the establishment insider, Hillary Clinton represents something more conventional. Either way, both candidates are political brands, and as brands, it is revealing to assess them from a marketing perspective.
Drawing on our cultural analysis of key ‘codes’ in different countries to help global brands land their global propositions within local cultures, we can look at the distinct ways Trump and Clinton are tapping into American values and beliefs with their campaign positioning.
All countries have unique cultural codes, and perceptions of these codes play a huge role in how marketing campaigns are run across different countries. In the US, the codes that Brands Trump and Clinton embody show us how they work at an implicit level; why Trump has come from nowhere, why Hillary has had a surprisingly uphill struggle, and why, in a weird way, Donald is her greatest asset.
Their righteous purposes: Crusaders on both sides
A candidate for the presidency needs a Righteous Purpose. And ‘the Donald’ has one. To his supporters, Trump is all about standing up for downtrodden Americans, protecting jobs and ‘Making America Great Again’. And for precisely the same reason the hardest punches his adversaries can land are on his supposed sexism, racism, corruption and greed etc, that is, his lack of Righteousness.
Hillary’s claim to Righteous Purpose lies in building on Obama’s legacy. While this resonates with many, it lacks the energy that Obama originally channelled. And again, Clinton’s greatest weakness is the degree to which she is not seen as personally Righteous. Her status as a political insider, the millions made from Wall Street and the questions about her emails are used to undermine her.
One reason why the tone of the debate is so angry is that Righteousness is a zero-sum game. Each side proclaims its own and denigrates the other. This makes things intensely personal because Righteousness resides in the person themselves.
Honest Endeavour: two American Dreams
The American Dream is the idea that if you work hard enough and have the talent, you can succeed. Trump’s claim to qualification for office is that he has made a great deal of money and as such is a living example of the American dream. It is for this same reason that his enemies remind people endlessly about his repeated bankruptcies.
Clinton taps into the American respect for Honest Endeavour through her work ethic, her grit, and her refusal to quit. This brings a genuine respect but her achievements lacks the punch of Trump Tower, the 747 and the Apprentice franchise.
‘Can Do’: breaking the gridlock in Washington
‘Can do’ is a core American virtue, and one that has particular resonance now because of the frustration Americans feel with the log jam in Washington. Trump portrays himself as a guy who knows how to negotiate and get results. Even some liberals see some hope in his deep pragmatism.
Clinton’s line of attack on Sanders is that her experience and realism mean that, unlike him, she can achieve what she says she will. But her years as part of the establishment clearly blunt this promise. Trump seems far more likely to bring change.
Being the Good Buddy: who has ‘America’s back’?
Americans have a vivid idea of the ‘Good Buddy’ and by the same token, want a President who ‘has their back’. Trump promises this with his blunt speech about building walls and stopping factories from moving to China. To millions he is the guy who speaks up for them and is looking out for their jobs.
Running against Trump, Clinton harvests all that Trump isn’t: measured, decent and progressive
Clinton again struggles here. To her advocates she has a track record of perusing progressive and compassionate policy, but this ‘empathy’ operates more at an intellectual than a personal level. Though she is said to be very warm in person, her public persona can be intimidating and even cold. Her support for NAFTA underlines this sense of detachment from the realities of working class angst.
The ‘Not Trump’ principle
Trump has shaped the debate with his visceral energy and vivid appeal to primal emotions. However this also works to Hillary’s advantage. There is another semiotic term, called the ‘Not-ness’ principle. This is the idea that you are defined as much by what you are not, as by what you are. When running against Obama, Hillary was framed as ‘old news’. But running against Trump she harvests all that Trump isn’t: measured, decent and progressive. The way Trump defines Clinton is one of her greatest strengths in appealing to the centrist majority.
The irony being that Trump has become Clinton’s greatest asset.