The lessons for brands in why Trump won

by Nigel Hollis | November 09, 2016

As I am sure you have heard by now, Donald Trump has won the U.S. Presidency. As Jim Rutenberg notes in the New York Times the news media and polls once again fundamentally misread the true feelings of the American electorate. If we learn anything from this surprise result, it is that salience and difference matter as much in politics as they do in branding.

In his article Rutenberg states that the media failed to capture,

“the boiling anger of a large portion of the American electorate that feels left behind by a selective recovery, betrayed by trade deals that they see as threats to their jobs and disrespected by establishment Washington, Wall Street and the mainstream media.”


Superficially Trump’s win is a tribute to salience and his ability to dominate social and traditional media. However, just as many iconic brands draw their power from a deep seated cultural tension, so too did Trump. Back in July of this year when Kantar Millward Brown assessed the standing of the two Presidential candidates, we found huge concern among Trump supporters over the threat newcomers posed to traditional American culture and values and over the size of government.

When it came to the face-off between Trump and Clinton it was a case of the uncandidate versus the establishment. Salience was no longer the advantage it had been because Clinton was equally strong, but Trump dominated when it came to difference. With Cruz and Sanders out of the race, Trump became the anti-establishment choice, and between April and July the perception that Trump would ‘limit the role of government’ nearly doubled. Looking for an outlet for their frustration the disillusioned among the electorate gave their vote to the outsider.

Beyond the ability to tap into a cultural tension three things helped Trump win:

  1. Trump knew his audience; he knew what his supporters cared about and preached to the choir, tapping into a cultural tension and clearly catering his message to appeal to his audience’s strongly-held personal and political beliefs.
  2. He also kept it simple, knowing that it’s the impression that counts, drawing upon his appearance as the anti-establishment candidate in order to drive perception that he was able to effect change, and limit the role of government.
  3. Trump also acted like a winner. According to Kantar Millward Brown research, Trump was intuitively and deliberatively associated with being confident, due in part to his bullish public statements. When people reflected on the subject, they realized that Clinton must be confident too, but it is on intuitive associations that Trump clearly won out. It has to be noted that neither candidate was strongly liked or trusted, so this intuitive associations were clearly a vital part in Trump’s success.

Of course, all of this is 20/20 hindsight. I did not expect to wake up in an alternative reality. But what is done is done and there are lessons aplenty in what has happened. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Nigel, November 28, 2016

    OK, apologies for not replying to these comments earlier but I needed a little time away from political debate...and then it was Thanksgiving! 

    Nitya, I suspect that there was a degree of gender chauvinism involved but honestly would see that as a relatively minor factor compared to Clinton's lack of purpose and clarity - see Jeremy's comment. 

    Pete, yes, I fear that just reporting the numbers is the norm, although as Alejandro suggests not all got it completely wrong. I do fear that we will now go through the usual round of polls bashing and, by implication, all surveys. As I think you are implying numbers have to be interpreted in context and we have to be willing to admit the unthinkable as Adam suggests - although honestly I am not sure I was. I presented the data Ciju mentions a week before the election and had this nasty feeling that we were missing something but hope suppressed that concern. On reflection it was the implicit association data that worried me most - lots of negatives for Clinton and one or two very strong positives for Trump. Could we do better as Ciju suggests? Yes, but I doubt any technique will be 100% accurate. There are always the unforeseen factors that can make the difference of 100,000 votes.

  2. Adam Ladds, November 17, 2016

    The unthinkable. 

    An acute reminder that when brands see only through a corporate or ideological lens they see and understand too little. This is a lesson in the value of the unthinkable. 

    When we don’t understand enough of what’s going on in the minds and lives of significant segments we’re being plain reckless with how we’re managing market share. Difficult as it is to gather reliable data and insights; today, Britain (with Brexit and Corbyn), Europe (with Juncker, Merkel, Hollande and Farage) and America (with Trump) strengthen the argument for thoughtful qualitative and quantitative data and insights. But the greater lesson is how we respond to this intelligence - and while foreign to the thinking of die-hard corporates and ideologues who are inclined to deliver corporate messages or fear-mongering that don’t resonate with influential segments, let’s try instead thinking and talking about the unthinkable - meaningfully.

    If people had thought the unthinkable there might now be a unifying journey instead of one where divisive market segments disrupt and make British, European and American brand building so difficult now.

  3. Simon Boswell, November 11, 2016

    For me, this result (and Brexit before it) has big implications for brands as it shows how our core assumptions about human decision-making are fundamentally flawed. Most people do not make rational choices based on a careful assessment of pros and cons - they start from 'am I happy with my current choice?' and then decide whether to make a change or not. And as purchasing behaviour continually shows, people are very capable of making quite significant changes in their behaviour that analytics cannot predict: the same is consistently true in politics.

    There's a great NLP phrase that says, "If what you're doing isn't working, try ANYTHING different." When people are disaffected with their previous choices, then they will tend to make radically different choices. In the Western world we have a large proportion of people who feel ill-at-ease and disaffected, for many reasons - so we see a growth in radical politics. Equally in many markets around the world, the leading brands are in decline. They have stopped serving the people they are supposed to serve. And people are therefore looking for 'anything different' to replace them.

  4. Jeremy Diamond, November 10, 2016

    I always thought he was going to win.  My mistake was not putting money on it.  It was evident from Brexit that polls tend to understate 'politically incorrect' opinions.  he captured the zeitgeist.  As someone said above, she was the wrong candidate at the wrong time (sorry Joe Biden, this could possibly have been yours.)  

    Trump did a lot right throughout his campaign.  His behavior was in many ways a masterclass in branding and communication.  

    Let me also quote a review from the cover of his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal', published in 1987:

    "Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again" - NY Times (ironic, given their hysterical vitriol during the campaign)

    What does Hillary make you believe in?  In fact, what does she believe in?  Even on November 9th I didn't know.  Nor did much of America.  

    That's ultimately why Trump won.  It is a triumph of identity, purpose and ideas, clearly communicated.  

    It's difficult to compete with the American dream.  

  5. Jose Manuel Fernandez, November 10, 2016
    Yes, Trump has been salient and different but he has also been meaningful to many people. His message has worked among his supporters in both ways meet my needs and affinity. 
  6. Pete Evans, November 10, 2016

    Thanks Nigel - always a thought provoking read. 

    I fear the result (again) reflects poorly on the so-called polling industry - and therefore by association the research industry.  I observe pollsters too often report their polls at absolute face value, rather than applying additional sources of insight to actually interpret results and therefore often more accurate predictions.  Do you think that's a fair observation ?

  7. Alejandro Turnes , November 10, 2016

    This article reflects an interesting outcome that we in Spain have also experienced in the form of New Political Party Podemos that in just 18 months has arisen to become the third largerst party from nil to 21% of votes and clearly positioned on overwhelm Salience and huge difference at least in their beginning.

    Anyway I want to make a respectful but strong case for Polls and Pollsters that except some shameful examples ( those funded by Liberal media that were the fundamental outliers- ABC/WP poll giving Hillary +12   3 weeks prior elections...come on..) as they get it most it right - RCP average 2 days before elections was 1.6 for Hillary that went it well in margin error (election result about +0.5 when California be 100% counted) but because liberal media issued the last day polls with Hillary +5 +6 and so on the final average was much far away something like 3.5%

    Polls state level that really matters have been also relatively successful -They detected very well the lanslide in Ohio and Iowa as Trump was declared winner there one week before,they detected the dead heat in Florida or North Carolina and more important the falling Blue Wall in rustbelt states going just plainly wrong in Wisconsin where final deviation was up 5 points.

    Moreover they consistently detected that Hillary coalition was falling apart 2 weeks before election and Trump was getting real momentum and so on so I think this is the moment of speaking loud and clearer for our industry claming what is fair to claim.

    By the way it seems Big data was also anticipating Trump victory 3 weeks before it making polls quite redundant .....

    Many thanks and best regards

  8. Roger Garcia , November 10, 2016
    I believe he led with a simple message and spoke to an audience that felt ignored. 
  9. Nitya, November 10, 2016
    Great first and second article.  Isn't there still a glass ceiling in US for women in politics? Isn't  there a deep rooted Gender Angle as well... 
  10. Emmanuelle Marcos, November 09, 2016
    Trump managed to convince millions of ordinary people that by voting for him they could become fantastic people contributing to make US great again. He made them dream of a brighter future.
  11. Victor Muthoka, November 09, 2016
    I think there's also the small matter of being the right brand at the right time. Hillary as a brand simply was the right brand at his space in time. 
  12. Ciju Nair, November 09, 2016

    We need to be able to make these calls in advance....20/20 hindsight is not good enough...we need 20/20 foresight.

    Am reminded of the candidates as brands Aug 2016 which showed Clinton fared better on Meaningful and Salient while Trump fared better on Different and Salient. While we reported on findings from our proven methodology, treating each candidate as a brand, and didn’t predict the outcome in November - I think it is time for us to make that leap from hindsight to insight to foresight.

    Hopefully we in analytics can help - To boldly go where no man has gone before. Foresight: the final frontier

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