Branding and its limits

The 2020 Presidential election shows the power and limitations of branding. Branding can overcome a struggling campaign organization (Trump), a divided party (Democrats) or a less-than-ideal candidate (Biden). Branding comes with significant limitations. First, the market can suddenly change leaving a brand badly positioned. Second, branding works if the product it is supporting works. Third, establishing a brand narrative, values and story allows competitors to position themselves as just being the opposite. Such an oppositional positioning strategy elected Biden because it let people vote against Trump who might usually vote for Republicans but it did little good for the rest of the Democratic field much of which lost after being successfully branded by Republicans as far left ideologues.

Trump’s re-election campaign originally centered around the country’s strong economic performance and the promises he had kept during his first term and trying to brand his Democratic opponent as an unacceptable alternative. In February, Trump looked positioned to win relatively easily but the world changed during that month when a novel coronavirus developed into a global pandemic. COVID could have been a showcase for the underlying product and boosted Trump to an easy re-election. Instead, it was a marketing disaster as the Administration’s slow and inconsistent response and its strict adherence to the highly targeted emotional brand that swept it into office undermined the Trump brand promise and limited its ability to attract new supporters. During COVID, Trump didn’t seem like the effective manager, strong leader and problem solver his brand promised and the crises COVID set into motion were hardly making American great again. Instead he seemed to blame others for the crisis and, as he said in his own words “take no responsibility” for the crises or decisions his administration made about handling it. Trump held regular briefings about the crisis that often went on too long while devolving from their stated theme into shouting matches and expressions of mutual disdain between him and the media. These events showed that the Trump product might not work as the brand had promised. Second, COVID undermined Trump’s brand by undermining the economy. Third, COVID amplified extant racial tensions and allowed Trump’s opponents to again question his racial attitudes thus tapping into questions of identity and equity that were raging in in the country during his term. Fourth, restrictions on public gatherings in most of the country limited Trump’s ability to hold rallies. Rallies served several purposes for the Trump campaign including 1) exciting the committed by bringing the brand to life thus generating positive buzz around the Trump brand 2) attracting the wavering and undecided by showing that it was OK to support Trump, 3) providing the campaign with live customer data and 4) giving the candidate and campaign a test bed for new themes and issues. It is no coincidence that late in the campaign, when Trump started doing live events again that the campaign’s messaging improved. Given the way that the voting rules had been relaxed to allow more early voting, it was too late by this point for Trump to show the wavering and undecided that it was OK to support him or that he was more competitive than the polls were saying as it turned out was so.

The Biden campaign was aided by environmental conditions, by Trump’s performance and by Trump’s refusal to adjust the brand to a changed market. Biden’s campaign shows the importance of the power of having the right brand value combination at the right time (competence, inclusion and empathy) plus an aspirational message about the future (build back better). The Biden camp also demonstrated the power of segmentation when it restricted the level at which new taxes would kick in to $400,000 meaning upper middle-class Americans appalled by Trump could vote for Biden unafraid of a tax rise.

Both campaigns and the brands that they developed are a testament to what the political scientist Alan Abramowitz has termed “negative partisanship”. Biden turned the campaign into a referendum on Trump by staying out of the way thus allowing Trump to become the face of the crisis. This elected Biden but it did not give him a mandate to do anything in office aside from not act like Donald Trump. This helped down ballot Republican candidates who presented their opponents as supporting their party’s left-wing figures and their agenda, especially those that the Biden team had endorsed. By campaign’s end both parties had given voters things to reject but little to support. Biden won, the Republicans held a skinny Senate majority, picked up House seats and did well at the state level; something that is important as House redistrict takes place within this term.