Trump: A master in branding, but failing badly in communications

Jamie Williams, Managing Partner at isobel on why Trump’s biggest downfall in the lead up to the 2020 US Elections is his communication strategy.

Jamie Williams

Managing Partner isobel


Donald Trump has created one of the most effective political brands in history, with a passionate following that hasn’t been seen before in right wing America. But as he scrambles to make the 2020 election competitive, his communications and marketing are now failing him.

US Politics has always had brands. Democrat, Republican, the Clintons, the Tea Party. But it’s not an overstatement to say that the Trump brand is like no other, and has literally transformed US politics, and the US in general. 

To win in 2016, Trump created a true challenger brand that played by a new set of rules. He used no-nonsense anti-PC ‘normal guy’ talk and promised disruption and change. He identified clear enemies and constantly pushed against them, creating a division in society that unified his followers. He tapped into the mindset of a large group of Americans who felt disaffection, disenfranchisement and anger about a seemingly unfair class structure in a country that had forgotten about them. And ‘Make America Great Again’ was a highly effective expression of this brand that stood for power and strength, words which he constantly repeated.  Whatever your opinions are on President Trump, he certainly created a strong brand.

Trump also created branded behaviours and assets, which he repeated over and over again: the ‘God Bless the USA’ music that introduces his arrival at every rally, the same red tie, the infamous MAGA red cap and catchy mini campaign lines of ‘lock her up’ and ‘build the wall’. It’s all classic branding and it worked, with Trump shocking the world by defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016 and winning the Presidency.

But four years later, Trump is two weeks away from his second presidential election and finds himself trailing Joe Bien by over 10 points in poll of poll averages. Many recent polls are worse than this for Trump. He’s spending resources and time defending red states like Georgia and Iowa, and FiveThirtyEight Politics give him only a 12/100 chance of winning.  

So, with such a strong brand and loyal following, how has this happened?

Trump is no longer the same challenger brand, and his insistence in talking about himself, rather than focusing on the lives of the people he need support from, is proving costly.

Jamie Williams

Trump’s biggest downfall 

Trump’s response to COVID-19 has obviously been hugely criticised, the US economy has crashed, and scandals about his conduct have been numerous, many started by ex-colleagues and family members. But despite all of these problems, it’s Trump’s communications that have been his biggest downfall.

Trump’s main issue is not studying his new target audience well enough, not adjusting his messages, and continually preaching to the converted, whist turning off the undecideds. He’s no longer the same challenger brand, and his insistence in talking about himself, rather than focusing on the lives of the people he need support from, is proving costly.

Rick Santorum, the ex-Republican Senator and Presidential candidate often says on CNN, where he is now a pundit, “I like 90% of what the President does, and 20% of what he says”. Trump’s loyal base will support and vote for him, regardless of what he does. As he famously said, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and they’d still vote for him. But this group is not limitless, and they can only each vote once, so it seems extraordinary to me that he still sees his base as the key target audience for all of his messages.   

Rick Santorum’s point will resonate with many in the centre group of the GOP, and perhaps amongst undecided voters. A large chunk of these key swing voters may have liked some of Trump’s economic policies, but simply can’t stand his rhetoric, his insults, and his insistence in creating and spreading lies, conspiracy theories, unrest and division.

Did Trump really benefit from his ‘stand down and stand by’ comment during the first presidential debate, when asked to condemn white supremacists? By seemingly winking to the far right, he massively turned off the middle ground, the votes he desperately needs to win. Similarly, after the vice-presidential debate, most non-partisan journalists felt Mike Pence did a pretty good job in exposing holes in the Bidden-Harris campaign, specifically in their reluctance to answer questions about their Supreme Court intentions. But rather than let this helpful story play out, Trump went on Fox News and called Kamala Harris a monster, a mad woman and a communist. These insults became the news story, limiting Trump’s opportunity to expand his support with middle ground voters, especially women, who seem to have left Trump in far bigger numbers than men.

Brands need to evolve their messaging

This has been the story of the campaign so far. Every opportunity Trump has to talk to American people, he doubles down on messages he knows his loyal base will love and further pushes undecided voters towards Joe Biden. After he caught COVID, he could have changed this and shown some genuine empathy and compassion. It could have won him vital support with seniors, another audience he desperately needs to attract. 

But his insistence to get back to massive rallies, lacking masks and social distancing, and his untrue claims about COVID being less deadly than the flu saw him instead playing to his loyal following. Another opportunity lost through bad comms. The same is true with his continual claims of voting fraud, and his latest sharing of bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories, which dominated headlines following his latest Town Hall. Engaging with his followers on Twitter helped Trump originally, but his Twitter account is actually costing him support now.

Trump has arguably a far stronger brand than Biden. And perhaps a more passionate core following.  But all marketers understand that to grow outside of their core base, brands need to consider who they are targeting, what makes them tick, and evolve their messages accordingly. Trump has done the opposite, and unless something major happens in the next couple of weeks, come 3rd November, he will surely regret it.

Guest Author

Jamie Williams

Managing Partner isobel


Jamie Williams is Managing Partner of independent creative agency isobel. He started his career in the US and is an avid follower of US politics. He’s been writing regularly for City AM this year on marketing trends and learnings around the 2020 US presidential election.

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