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By most professional standards, Hillary Clinton ran a near-perfect campaign. She had a more sophisticated digital operation, rocked the debates, put on an amazing convention, had a comprehensive field program, raised far more money, and ran far more ads. Donald Trump barely even did most of those things, let alone knocked any of them out of the park.
So why is Trump now the president-elect? With all its gaffes, his campaign hardly conducted a master class in branding, and he did lose the nationwide vote by roughly 2.5 million. His biggest risk was Republican voters sitting the election out after his seemingly dozens of horrible campaign moments.
But in the end, Clinton’s brand wasn’t strong enough in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to protect her from last-minute doubts raised by FBI Director James Comey. And Trump positioned his brand just well enough that when Clinton showed weakness in a couple of key states, the enthusiasm among his core supporters put him over the top.
Had Clinton improved on the weakest part of her campaign, her value proposition, she very likely could have strengthened her brand enough to withstand those last-second doubts. Here’s where it went wrong and how it could have gone right.
Even though her value proposition could have been stronger, credit Clinton’s team for at least reflecting it aptly in one of her most common campaign slogans: “I’m With Her.”
That slogan made much more of a statement about how a voter could see him- or herself than her other most common slogan, “Stronger Together.” The problem is, “I’m With Her” and the value proposition it represented were weak on multiple levels.
Start with level one, the most literal meaning of the slogan. For “I’m With Her” to be effective, people would have to want to be with her. Right? Simple, except Clinton was not a popular nominee. One of the least popular of all time, in fact. Trump was even less popular, but “Make America Great Again” didn’t place the spotlight solely on himself.
On another level, “I’m With Her” also contained a pretty obvious appeal to the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy as the first female nominee of a major party. For some people, that was a big draw. For others, though – even others who weren’t misogynist or anti-feminist – it still didn’t say much about the value she would deliver them.
For that latter group, let’s start getting esoteric on level three. If I don’t want to be “With Her” as an individual or as a symbol, then it must be because of her policies – and there wasn’t much of a thread tying those policies together. Human nature abhors a narrative vacuum, so people will still draw an implicit story out of a narrative-free list of policies. And the implicit story didn’t have much to say either.
Here’s a very basic version of the untold story of Clinton’s policies: “the country should be run by responsible people who make things more or less work.” It’s a point that’s hard to disagree with, but it doesn’t exactly rev most people’s engines. It inspires weak commitment. And while inspiring only weak commitment makes a brand more susceptible to just about any attack, it leaves a responsibility/competence brand especially vulnerable to attacks on ethics. Like, say, a last-minute letter from the FBI about emails.
Just as a bonus, let’s also use identity as level four. That policy story leaves “responsible people” for a voter to identify with. And “Stronger Together” supports the same conclusion by encouraging a given Clinton supporter to identify with some unnamed fellow supporter, presumably one of the “responsible people.”
But those are the very people Trump had a pretty effective critique against – namely, that those “responsible people” had made the country work only for coastal elites. It’s easy to surmise that a few thousand Midwesterners that usually vote Democratic, but sat this election out might have been influenced by this critique, even if they didn’t buy Trump as the solution.
You don’t have to look far to find a slogan that would have been more powerful for Clinton. In fact, the campaign itself came up with it: Love Trumps Hate.
Clinton didn’t use this slogan as much as I’m With Her, but it did find its way onto the occasional podium sign or campaign button. And it communicated an entirely different value proposition.
Love isn’t a choice. It’s a moral imperative. It can carry a hippie-dippy connotation, but even most conservatives would have to concede it’s a major force in their lives. Now, Clinton already had a problem with being perceived as cold. But she would have brought a Nixon-goes-to-China credibility to it that most Democrats wouldn’t have been able to pull off, and it would have made her seem warmer.
Love also provides a story that can connect disparate policy priorities. We want to preserve Obamacare because we love our families and neighbors and want them to be healthy. We want a smarter crime policy because we love people of all races. We want a strong, cautious defense policy because we love our country. And so forth.
Having a good story to connect those policies would have given voters something to identify with – who doesn’t want to think of themselves as someone who can proudly turn the other cheek? And having a good story would have provided an alternate explanation to weakly committed supporters who didn’t understand what motivated Clinton.
Lastly, Love Trumps Hate was an amazingly effective way to negatively define the opponent — something the Clinton camp prioritized– while keeping the primary focus on a positive vision. Coming up with a tagline that does that is one of the hardest things for a marketer to do, let alone in just three words. It would have been beautiful.
I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the polling. Maybe Love Trumps Hate wouldn’t have worked. I don’t know. But I do know brands, and I do know campaigns – and I know how this cycle’s story ended.
In this election, having a better campaign didn’t matter, but brand positioning did. And Clinton’s position, as conveyed through the stories implicit in her central value proposition, ended up being too weak.
Will Bunnett is a principal at Clarify Agency, a full-service agency partnering with campaigns, causes, and businesses to manage their brands across every digital screen.