This post is about how branding strategy works, and how the basic components of branding strategy are playing out in our political situation today. This topic may strike some people as superficial, and therefore, morally repugnant, because there are terrible things going on in our country right now, so why the hell should we be thinking about branding, which is essentially a concept born out of the for-profit marketing industry to make us want to buy stuff? Because, quite simply: the different brand strategies deployed by the various actors in our chaotic political situation are having a HUGE influence on actual events. We don’t stand a ghost of a chance to fight back against these horrible things unless we get our branding ducks in a row.
There are numerous definitions out there of what the word “brand” means, and the ones I really like focus on how branding is mostly about conveying the “essence” and the “personality” of what you do or who you are. Branding, in other words, is NOT about getting your target customer to memorize the details of what it is you’re trying to sell. I’ve sat through numerous brand training sessions where Apple is used as a prime example of successful branding, and when the logo flashes onscreen, the facilitator asks, “What qualities or characteristics does this bring to mind?” and the people always, always say “innovative,” as their top answer. They do not say, “Well, I think about the critical differences between the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X, and whether I really needed the Apple Watch as an additional device.” What they share is how Apple makes an impression, in a gestaltian type of way. Branding is the door-opener to your overall marketing strategy—it’s about getting your target customer hooked through impressions, emotions, and shared values, so that you can draw them in deeper and get them to buy what you’re actually selling.
Given that branding operates in such fuzzy-wuzzy, emotional, and diffuse ways, people don’t often pay attention to the details behind the brand. This is why brand loyalty is such a big deal in marketing (for-profit and nonprofit)—once we decide we like something, we tend to stick with it, until the entity you’re supporting does something really, really egregious that makes you really, really mad–like, you know, compromises all of your data and leaves you vulnerable to Russian influence-peddlers. Stuff like that.
You not paying attention to many of the details behind the brand is convenient for the seller, because that’s what they’re counting on—that you’re simply going to feel one way or another about whatever it is they’re selling, and buy it, without nitpicking the details. Fox News presents a perfect example of this. I’ve heard a few people—a very few people—tweet their confusion about whether Fox News is still a legitimate media outlet. Because on one hand, we have Sean Hannity and the blowhards on Fox & Friends, whose sole function appears to be propaganda-spewing for the Trump Administration and who appear to be entirely comfortable living in a universe untroubled by facts or, for that matter, morals and ethics. And then on the other hand, we have reporters and anchors like Chris Matthews and Shep Smith who still appear to be playing the parts of legitimate journalists by raising critical—and blindingly obvious—questions about the Trump Administration’s disdain for logic and the rule of law. All of the entities that operate under the brand of “Fox News” belong to an even bigger media conglomerate, one that puts out occasionally decent television shows and movies. There is plenty of rotten stuff going on in the Fox universe, but there is also decent, high-quality work going on, too.
How do these contradictions exist within the same media conglomerate? Remember what I just said, about how branding strategy usually doesn’t concern itself with the details? This is what Fox is counting on: that people are reacting to the gestaltian elements of the Fox brand, and not the details. And what is utterly fascinating about Fox’s particular branding approach is how it works in exactly opposite ways depending on whether you’re in their target demographic, or outside of it. In other words: for the millions of Fox viewers who absolutely depend on and trust Fox News as their main source of information and news, the existence of contrary commentators like Shep Smith and Chris Matthews only serve to confer legitimacy on their media consumption. “See?” they can say, “I’m not some chump who believes whatever someone wants me to believe, I can handle different points of view and arrive at my own conclusions!” However, for the millions of Americans who loathe and distrust Fox News, after years and years of being fed a steady diet of cynical, mocking (and, incidentally, well-founded) criticism from comedy news outlets like The Daily Show, Shep Smith and Chris Matthews are invariably tainted. Whatever legitimate news and questions they may be commenting on, it doesn’t matter—they’re all part of the corrupt enterprise.
For the demographics targeted by Fox, you’ve got what I would call a “brand halo.” This is where positive attributes of a brand strategy accrue to something related that falls within the brand’s purview. This is what happens when we think fondly of our local NPR station because we have positive feelings about NPR in general (some local NPR stations do a good job of earning viewer loyalty apart from the NPR brand, but there is no question that in most cases, the NPR brand provides the halo). And negative feelings extend to other related things in the same way, which is what I would dub a “brand shadow.” No matter how tough Shep Smith gets on Trump and his cronies, we who fall outside the Fox News target demographic will sadly shake our heads and continue to rage at the blowhards.
So now that I’ve outlined a theory of how a branding strategy works—halo and shadow effects, too—why am I so raising this topic at all? Because obviously, I’m concerned about the consequences of NOT paying attention to the details behind the brand. I’m concerned about the millions of Americans who comfortably believe that Fox News is a legitimate media enterprise simply because they allow one or two of their anchors and commentators to say critical things. And I’m also concerned about the consequences for the other side, too—which I will unblushingly confess is my side—that the brand shadow works just as effectively to mask important details as the brand halo does, so we end up expending energy as we rage and rage about things we perceive as evil (like Fox News) which leaves us no energy whatsoever to pick our battles and play smart, targeted, offense.
In many ways, Trump himself is the ultimate embodiment of consistent brand strategy. He has been on brand – his personal brand – from day one. His brand attributes are: honesty, plain-speaking, and smart business sense, and he is astonishingly effective at conveying these attributes even though they are repeatedly debunked by evidence and facts. His brand halo is incredibly powerful for his supporters: whatever Trump does, the details simply don’t matter, because for them, everything he says and does accrues right back to his brand, positively. Similarly, his brand shadow is incredibly powerful, too—if Trump makes sense for even one minute, or shows a grain of humanity, those of us who are sickened and angered by the terrible things he does and says are not capable of hearing it or appreciating it. None of us, in other words, are paying attention to the details behind Trump’s brand. Because that’s how branding normally works. That’s actually how branding is DESIGNED to work.
But here’s the thing: we’ve got elections coming up. And we’ve got voters who are existing at the outer margins of either Trump’s brand shadow or his halo. We are dealing with an American populace who vote for presidents on sheer likability alone, and whether they can picture themselves having a beer with the person, or not.
So I think that getting the candidates we want elected, in 2018 and 2020, involves one of two possible strategies to puncture the brand halo or the brand shadow of Trump’s incredibly powerful brand.
–One, we can get target voters to focus on the details behind the brand. Not ALL of the voters, and not ALL of the details—again, we are highly disinclined to focus on too many details when it comes to brand loyalty—but just a few that are proven (through good market research) to either powerfully galvanize people to show up, or powerfully piss people off. I feel enormous sympathy for the Democrats in how hard it is to fight back against Trump AND run a state-by-state grassroots organizing effort, but at the same time, I just don’t believe it’s that hard to figure out which details about Trump have legs (as campaign messages) and which ones don’t. The pre-existing conditions for health insurance coverage? That’s definitely a winner, because health insurance companies are already the bad guys and way too many of us—across the political spectrum—have fought those battles individually, and on a personal level. The children getting ripped out of parents’ arms at the border? It is shocking to say this out loud, but I can see how this issue is sickening and enraging some of us so much, we are in danger of becoming paralyzed by our rage, and yet at the same time, it’s not really bothering Trump’s supporters at all. Given the general views of Trump supporters on equity and immigration, they are likely to believe that people coming to this country “deserve” what they’re getting by trying to “break into” our country. They have conveniently forgotten that they are descended from immigrants—that Trump is married to one!—and they do not care about the details, like: family anguish and trauma, penning up these children in detention, etc. PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying that we shouldn’t be fighting back against these atrocities; what I am saying is, I am not sure this particular fight should be a part of the branding/messaging strategy that will win us the elections.
–Two, we can launch a massive campaign to a) revitalize the brand of Democrats and progressive candidates and b) render irrelevant the Trump brand. This is not as impossible as it sounds: during his first presidential run, Obama did just that around an incredibly simple and powerful brand component, which was “Change.” Democrats and progressive candidates need to figure out what the essential element is of their collective and individual brands. One of the many problems with the 2016 campaign—in addition to the elements of hostile foreign powers and corruption—was that Hillary and Bernie split the Democratic brand identity. Hillary stood for experience and the shattering of the ultimate glass ceiling; Bernie stood for ultimate independence, free from corporate influence (that he doesn’t seem to get very much done in Congress was, again, a detail, that was completely lost on his millennial fans). The Democratic movement was fractured, whereas the Trump movement was not. Add in a hefty dollop of election meddling and corruption, on top of the groundwork conveniently laid by Citizens United, and there you have it: a Trump victory, as improbable as it seemed at the time.
Which of the above approaches would work the best? At this point, given the desperate circumstances, I am longing to see both. With the money I give to political candidates, and the amount of media I consume, I DO pay attention to the details, and I DO look behind the branding strategy to see what’s what, so I can make decisions accordingly. I get a LOT of emails and a LOT of appeals in my social media feeds. Not only do I not see a hint of either strategy I outline above, I don’t see a hint of ANY strategy going on in the Democratic party, other than repeated communications about a laundry list of tactics they’re deploying to win 2018 midterms. So it leaves me with the central question: What’s our winning brand strategy against Trump, people? Because continuing to lose on branding could very well lead to continued losses in politics and, most unbearably, in human lives.