This election season, as brutal as it is for those of us not fond of discord, holds an important lesson for marketers – the value of having a brand that feels authentic. Whatever your personal feelings toward a disheveled 74 year-old socialist or an abrasive billionaire with bad hair, the fact that these men are unabashedly true to themselves certainly accounts for a big part of their immense popularity in certain circles. What’s more, it proves that authenticity can make up for a number of sins. How often do you hear voters point to the way these candidates present themselves as the basis for their support? Clearly, voters are willing to forgive words, actions or even policies that might sink a less authentic candidate. That is a quintessential illustration of the power of a brand.

We’re certainly not suggesting that being authentic requires being outrageous or even anti-establishment, but if you look past the hullaballoo, there are marketing truths to uncover in our current political climate. 

Anatomy of a Brand

Originality is inherently compelling

Whether you like them or not, you can’t help but take notice of candidates like Sanders and Trump. These two political phenomena are using their identities – warts and all - to carve out an advantage. In other political seasons, being a political outsider or not being a party’s chosen candidate could be the kiss of death for a campaign, but when these attributes actually become an integral part of one’s brand, it certainly sets them apart from other candidates. In a similar vein, we encourage our clients to find ways to be different, whether that’s in their product/service offering, their style or a method of delivery. If you haven’t read our last brand blog about differentiation, we encourage you to do so.  

If you’re able to control the conversation, you have an advantage

Trump and Sanders established themselves by confronting topics that other candidates were largely unwilling to discuss – immigration and income inequality, respectively. As a result, they were able not only to connect with voters in a unique way, but also to force the other candidates to follow suit. In branding, the first-mover advantage applies as much to messaging as it does to technological superiority within a market. In the end, however, it’s important to understand that what you say is often less important than how you say it. For example, Donald Trump’s opponents have long criticized him for lacking  substance on the issues, yet his is the campaign generating the most excitement among Republican primary voters. And it’s not even close.

Directness is refreshing

Related to controlling the conversation is tackling subjects that can be difficult to broach.  Bernie Sanders acknowledged that his agenda would require raising taxes – obviously an unpopular position to take in a campaign season full of promises – and a pretty distinct departure from the messages of his opponents. For his part, Mr. Trump’s abject disregard for political correctness is a critical component of his persona, and thus, his appeal. What does that tell us about voters, or consumers? Getting a real answer – even one you don’t like – is preferable to getting a contrived or phony one, in politics or anywhere else. Whatever industry you’re in, being perceived as a straight shooter gives you an immediate advantage. 

Perceptions can be adjusted – if the adjustments ring true 

Like any good brand marketer, Mr. Sanders is attempting to turn a negative into a positive by saying that the tax increases he’s proposing will actually save taxpayers money in the long term. Sanders polls highest among all candidates on honesty and trustworthiness by voters in both parties, so whether they agree with his assertion or not, that integrity is carrying him a long way in public perception. Similarly, if your brand is priced at a premium or has some other perceived disadvantage (e.g., a difficult location), striving to reframe your total value proposition is important – provided it comes from a place that is genuine. And no matter what you’re selling, no matter what the message, being authentic means talking to your audience like they’re smart enough to know what’s good for them.

Playing it safe is almost always a fatal mistake 

Above all, Trump and Sanders are not trying to be all things to all people. For better or worse, they are taking stands and presenting themselves in ways that, although they may be highly polarizing, engender rabid support among certain portions of the audience. They watch the polls, but they don’t play to them. You’ll rarely see either candidate reading from a teleprompter or, especially in the case of Mr. Trump, mincing words when asked a direct question. As different as they are, personally and on the political spectrum, these men do not exhibit “typical politician” behavior, and in 2016, their brand of politics has become an enormous disruption to the status quo. It’s quite possible that more qualified candidates have fallen by the wayside in this election year, but regardless of Mr. Sanders’ or Mr. Trump’s ultimate success or failure in the presidential race, theirs are the brands that elicit the most authentic emotion among voters. For marketers, this comparison example underscores the need to connect with target audiences on a gut level. Avoid generic messages. Don’t blend in. Don’t talk at people; instead, strive to build a relationship with consumers on multiple levels – and above all, make sure your identity rings true and is consistent across every brand touchpoint. Which brings us to our next topic in our Anatomy of a Brand series – Consistency. Stay tuned!