Disrupting the disruptors: Brand lessons from the US presidential campaign

Rob Shepardson argues that establishment brands can learn many lessons from Hillary Clinton's strategy against the disruptor candidate Donald Trump.

Disrupting the disruptors: Brand lessons from the US presidential campaign

Barring a catastrophe, Hillary Clinton will be the next, and first female, US president. Let’s join hands and say together: thank God. 

To chief executives and marketers worried if their legacy companies can hold their own against fierce upstarts, take heart: Clinton’s playbook is helpful. 

She beat back two potent, classic American populists: Bernie Sanders from the inclusive, progressive, anti-elitist left; and Donald Trump, from the authoritarian, ethno-centric, anti-elitist right. 

They exploited the technological, demographic, cultural and economic changes that continue to buffet and divide us. Despite the huge progress President Obama has made on rebuilding the middle class from the Great Recession, the haves and have-nots still remain. Racial, income and gender inequality persist. We self-segregate into isolated tribes, consume our own media and create our own facts. We have little contact with, let alone understanding of, "the other". Disdain and anger flow in both directions. 

The populist surge was so powerful that the most-prepared presidential candidate in history might have lost to the least-prepared, unimaginably buffoonish and criminally of-fensive candidate in history. In other words, perfect conditions for disrupting the status quo. 

Here is what Clinton has done brilliantly:

The lessons 

Take advantage of the larger forces at play

There are three main factors that have determined the outcome of most of the recent presidential elections:

1. The economy, which, in this case, is good and getting better: we’ve added 15.3 million jobs since early 2010 and real wages have grown faster since the early 1970s.

2. The sitting president’s job approval, which, for Obama, is strong and growing. On 19 October, his job approval/disapproval score was 52/45 – a net improvement of 12 points in one year.

3. The state of the opposition party, which, for the Republicans, could not get any worse. It is in a death spiral of its own making. 

Against the relentless criticism that Sanders and Trump threw at the economy and the president, Clinton stayed firm. With everyone screaming change, she argued for continuity but added plans to fix the problems that remain. She called in Michelle and Barack Obama as top surrogates. And she has mostly stood aside as the Republicans and Trump self-immolated. 

Know what victory looks like

Presidential elections are won by mobilising the base and winning over up-for-grab voters in no more than ten or 11 statewide races. 

Clinton’s base has been relatively stable for some time now. The trick was ensuring they vote. And the single most effective weapon in turning out votes is person-to-person contact. When combined with individual targeting on- and offline (driven by big data), it’s magic. 

To add to her base, Clinton remained laser-focused on the relatively small group of "up-for-grabs" – voters who swing general elections. None were more important than older, married (especially white) suburban women. She knew what they cared and were scared about. Clinton knew they shared her values even if, as she admitted, she wasn’t the most exciting politician. She knew her grasp of the issues demonstrated those values – equal pay for women, unfettered access to reproductive healthcare, expanded social security. And in a choice against Trump, she knew that would carry the day. 

Thousands of Clinton volunteers are now calling and knocking on doors in battleground states. They will get out her base voters – more than public polls can measure – and will repeatedly contact those few remaining un-decided voters. Trump has none of this to speak of.

Adaptation and positioning win

Elections are dynamic, living chess matches. After the primary, the fear was that Trump would move to the middle, fast. As the ultimate salesman, he would do whatever he needed to do to close the deal, right? It never happened. 

In early summer, Clinton’s advertising arsenal unloaded on Trump’s temperament and policies: he’s anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-prisoners of war, anti-immigrants, anti-Mexicans, and more. And far from mitigating his negatives, Trump confirmed them. His problems mushroomed at the end of the Democratic convention, when he criticised Captain Khan’s Gold Star family. It accelerated with his body-shaming of Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, and with the leak of the Access Hollywood tape. 

Clinton had a tougher job. Throughout the primary, she had to be careful not to alienate the left as she put Sanders away. She needed Sanders’ young base, which creates the energy and popular culture of the autumn campaign. So she adapted: Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone Pipeline, adopted much of Sanders’ free college plan and endorsed stronger Wall Street reform. 

And then she tacked to the centre to talk about middle-class economic values and cultural and personal values of tolerance, fairness and equity. Clinton knew voters were upset and frustrated at the ugly divisiveness of our culture. Focus groups worried that Trump would "legalise hate". Without any irony, Clinton talked about the need for more "love and kindness". 

The choice became clear. Adaptation is shrewd and differentiation triumphs. 

Play your own game

Trump revealed his playbook in The Art of the Deal and its bastard child, The Apprentice. As Jim Rutenberg wrote in The New York Times, Trump mastered reality TV, which rewards the appearance of authenticity and constant drama. That captures Trump’s candidacy. 

Clinton is the anti-Trump. She’s "the most famous, least-known person" in America, according to her communications director. Her 30 years of experience and wonkiness is, in this moment, a burden. The campaign struggled to show the real Clinton, wonkiness and all. Early on, they tried to look hip on social media. It didn’t go well. But they pulled back and discovered how to play to her strengths: set speeches dealing with policy; no press conferences; one-on-one interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon and The View; and self-deprecation on Saturday Night Live and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. And she showed up big when it mattered, dominating the debates, confirming that substance does matter. The takeaway? Clinton’s comfortable with who she is and knows her stuff, and that’s pretty good. 

Drawing lessons from a presidential race is tricky. It is arguably the most competitive, unrelenting, multi-faceted and consequential campaign imaginable. 

But genuine disruption is everyone’s reality. Alan Murray of Fortune recently asked Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors, how she’s dealing with electric cars, autonomous cars and ride-sharing, any one of which would be disruptive enough. 

Her answer? Stick to the fundamentals. When the world is swirling, they still matter. 

It’s why Clinton will win.  

Rob Shepardson is a partner and co-founder of SS&K M&C Saatchi. He led SS&K’s work as the youth agency for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns