Most U.S. presidents are good public speakers, hold popular policy positions, and possess personalities and résumés that are “presidential.” But that’s not enough to make it to the highest office in the land. To do that, you need marketing.
The 2016 presidential candidates know this. Hillary Clinton prepped for her campaign by enlisting hotshot marketers from Coca-Cola and the advertising agency GSD&M to help “re-imagine [the] Clinton brand.” And Ted Cruz turns to sophisticated data analytics to profile and target potential Cruz voters.
It’s still early going, but here are four lessons that 2016’s primary process has for marketers:
1. Use clear, simple messages that resonate with your audience. Few predicted that Bernie Sanders would have success in the primaries. After all, he’s a self-described socialist—and Jewish, to boot. But after a victory in New Hampshire, and close finishes in Iowa and Nevada, the Clinton campaign is treating him as a very real threat. How has Sanders done it? Among other things, he’s hammered away at a core set of clear, compelling messages about wealth and income inequality, universal health care, and financial reform.
In the other party, Donald Trump has won three straight states after losing Iowa to Cruz—and he owes at least some of his success to the power of a few popular catchphrases, which I’d argue are the verbal equivalents of marketing taglines. Consider: “Make America great again.” Or: “We need to build a wall,” which Trump admits he pulls out when audiences are getting bored. No doubt, “You’re fired!” taught Trump that a good catchphrase (or tagline) can go a long way.
2. Take advantage of opportunities to piggyback on current events. Playing off of current events can keep your messaging platform fresh and relevant. For instance, this Clinton tweet piggybacked on the Super Bowl to make an old point (“Fox News is biased”) in a fresh and funny way. And the Democratic National Committee began using the specter of a Trump presidency to raise money in the wake of his victory in New Hampshire.
3. Make email a core component of your marketing strategy. Email marketing works. People who give you permission to send them emails are far more likely to buy whatever you’re selling. Email also gives you the flexibility to change your messaging on the fly in reaction to new events. The political world learned that lesson when email helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008. Today, every serious campaign makes email central to its communication and fundraising strategy.
4. Tell compelling stories to engage audiences more deeply. Stories are powerful—in politics, marketing, and life in general. Successful politicians know this as well as successful marketers do, which is probably why it’s such a cliché when political speeches employ anecdotes about constituents to make political points—“when he returned from the war, Private Thompson was forced to wait nearly two years for emergency bunion removal surgery . . . .”
Some of the best and most viral political advertising of the year so far relies on storytelling. Cruz has been getting a lot of attention for a series of (somewhat) humorous political ads, including one that mocks Clinton by placing her in an iconic scene from the film Office Space. And Erica Garner’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders packs a powerful dramatic and moral wallop.