Trump is a new world in political branding, say David Sable and Will Johnson
His over-the-top message is a new way of reaching voters, they say
The brand he is most similar to, in Sable and Johnson's research: Ultimate Fighting Championship
Editor’s Note: David Sable is CEO of Young & Rubicam. Will Johnson is president of BAV Consulting. Owned by Young & Rubicam Group, BAV studies brand equity. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
“It upsets you and me, maybe – but we’re not typical Americans.”
That’s what one of Richard Nixon’s ad men told journalist Joe McGinniss during Nixon’s 1968 run for the White House, as recounted in McGinniss’$2 1969 book, “The Selling of the President.”
They were speaking about a group of PR men who tailored Richard Nixon’s image to match the desires of the public in 1968. Speechwriters, pitchmen and consultants built the campaign into what amounted to an exercise in consumer advertising. It marked the beginning of an age in which “packaging” a political candidate became a normal part of political campaigning. It was this shift, toward style over substance, that bothered McGinniss’ source.
Forty-eight years later, no one is surprised at candidates being packaged and sold like fast food and beer. It would be naive to expect anything else.
But the public has also become more savvy: Most consumers are pretty confident of their ability to consider a message and determine its authenticity. Today, advertisers know that we know that soft drinks can’t make us happy. So they approach us with a knowing wink, often using an obviously over-the-top pitch that makes us laugh as if we – the consumer – are in on the joke. Remember the Geico cave men?
Political messaging, however, has for the most part avoided this approach and remained earnest in tone, if not always in substance. And political campaigns in particular have largely remained an irony-free zone.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump may be the first major U.S. political candidate to break this mold. He has embraced this very kind of ironic, over-the-top messaging that comes with a wink and a nudge and a clear subtext.
Instead of policy specifics, Trump trades in dog-whistle rants about Mexican “rapists and murderers” and women who are “fat pigs” and opponents who are “weak” or “stupid” or “total losers.” Even the policy specifics that he does offer tend to ignore any semblance of practical, political and legal realities: Build a huge border wall at no cost to the United States, deport 11 million people, and ban the world’s Muslims from entering the United States – until “we know what’s going on.”
Trump sells himself as the man who will use any and all means necessary to “make America great again” – without explaining exactly how he will do it.
So, how does one understand the power and attraction of the Trump brand? Think cage fighting.
Young & Rubicam has surveyed and studied Trump’s consumer brand for many years through surveys and other market research. Crunch Trump’s scores on the dozens of traits surveyed, and he lines up perfectly with one of the world’s most distinctive brands: Ultimate Fighting Championship.
UFC, if you don’t know, organizes mixed martial arts fights all over the world. In this relatively new sport, contestants do battle with moves borrowed from boxing, wrestling, karate and other forms of hand-to-hand combat.
Although UFC matches are governed by rules and controlled by referees, compared with traditional boxing matches they look like free-for-alls. In fact, in the years before UFC was reformed with stricter controls, Sen. John McCain once called it “human cockfighting.”
But the attraction is undeniable for many: Both Trump and UFC present an unusual and dangerous spectacle that is compelling to many Americans.
How did we come up with Trump = UFC? We did it by first selecting the traits that consumers most associate with each presidential candidate and then selected a variety of brands that score the best on those combinations of “candidate-traits.”
For example, Trump has always been associated with both luxury and arrogance, but more recently, he has consistently outscored his GOP rivals on qualities such as “different” and “dynamic” and “independent.” People said he is far more energetic than Marco Rubio, and far more daring than Jeb Bush.
Cocksure and extreme, Trump is the only candidate we tested who aligns so closely with a sport. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, aligns closely with car brands like Ford and Toyota: Stolid, a bit boring, but competent and dependable.
At UFC fights, fans may identify with the fighters and fantasize about dominating their opponents in the ring. But after all the action and fantasy is over, most of them will drive safely home to their families in a practical, reliable, roadworthy car – you know, like a Ford or Toyota.