Why Hillary’s Campaign Failed: A Marketing Analysis
With the election over and the Democratic party sifting through the debris to figure out what went wrong, I wanted to discuss Hillary’s campaign from a messaging and storytelling perspective.
Put simply: Hillary Clinton’s campaign had worse messaging than Trump’s every step of the way. Keep in mind, I say this as a Democrat who was consistently bothered by her inability to create a coherent, winning message. Looking at the campaign from this perspective, it’s actually easy to see why she didn’t connect with a majority of voters.
Hillary’s failure is, in large part, a failure of marketing. Let’s break down why:
1. Lack of a Consistent, Aspirational Message
Regardless of your feelings of the man or his business dealings, Trump has always been a master of branding. Whether it’s his name gleaming on the side of a New York hotel or plastered above a university website, he’s proven over and over again that he knows how to create a consistent, aspirational message, associating his very name with success.
With that in mind, Make America Great Again is a damn good slogan. It’s four simple words, and it convey’s a message that’s aspirational, while being broad enough to let a wide range of people pour their own ideas of what makes America great into it. He developed this slogan early, only adding “Drain the Swamp” towards the end of his campaign, which worked hand in hand with his original messaging.
Hillary never had this. In fact, by my count, she had three campaign slogans vying for the spotlight, and none of them very strong. “I’m With Her”, “ Love Trumps Hate” , and “Stronger Together” were each used at different points in the election run, and each are unsuccessful for various reasons.
Before I discuss the failures of each, I have to just state that having three to begin with is a big problem. This meant that there was no single rallying cry for her supporters, which meant that her message could never fully unify an audience. In addition, none of these messages emphasize a “vision”. Regardless of your politics, “Make America Great Again” is a mission statement, something most candidates need.
None of Hillary’s slogans do this. “I’m With Her” is okay, and makes it feel like you’re picking your “team” , but it doesn’t inspire. “Love Trumps Hate” aims to be inspiring, but it’s an odd message, and it was a poor choice of words to use the opponent’s name in the slogan. “Stronger Together” is perhaps the most uniting of the three, but it still doesn’t show a plan or a vision for what the future holds with Hillary.
None of them are effective as Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” , and they definitely don’t work as well as her husband’s first presidency, “Putting People First”, and considering his ability to connect with people, that’s a travesty.
The last problem with all of these slogans? The fact that they are reliant on you liking Hillary as a candidate — “I’m With Her” requires you to support her as well as her vision, which was a problem because…
2. Negative Branding
How many times did you hear that phrase on Trump’s campaign trail? On news conferences, in magazine articles, retweeted from his supporters, or clogging up your Facebook feed? Once again, even if you disagree with the branding, it did what all great branding is supposed to do — it stuck.
Donald Trump did this to many of his opponents early in the campaign, from “Lyin Ted” to “Little Marco”, always finding a one-word adjective that he could get to stick on his opponent to paint them in a negative light.
Try as she might, she couldn’t shake this branding, and even worse, her team never branded Donald in the same way. What about calling him #DumbDonald, and running a campaign exposing every silly business decision he’s made? Or #DishonestDonald ( though that definitely doesn’t have a ring to it) and branding him as a traitor to the working man? Or even creating her own one-word brand for herself and using it every chance she got?
There were plenty of opportunities to reverse engineer this branding, but they never took, and no matter how many barbs Hillary’s team lobbed against Donald, none of them stuck out as strongly as this phrase.
Speaking of which…
3. Downplaying Negativity, Rather Than Creating Positivity
Much of Hillary’s campaign was spent responding to Donald Trump’s attacks and playing his way. Many people lamented that she spent more time attacking Trump rather than talking about her own record.
Donald Trump branded himself as an “outsider” and Hillary as the worst kind of “insider”. And Hillary never escaped it. Instead, she tried to act as though she was the outsider because she was the first woman candidate for President.
There were two problems with this messaging:
1. It played into her opponent’s hand. At the end of the day, she could never be as much as an outsider than Trump was, and she wound up bending herself into pretzels trying to sound as though she was. It would have been much smarter messaging to instead EMPHASIZE her extreme experience and insider-ness as positives, and that an outsider wouldn’t be able to accomplish nearly as much. While she pivoted to this messaging late in the campaign, it was too little, too late.
2. In trying to make herself look like an outsider by talking up being the first female president, she had to fall back on the message that she was “making history”. In fact on election day, she kept posting “ let’s make history today” to various social outlets. The problem? That’s not a reason to vote for someone. Most people didn’t care about making history — especially because history was made eight years ago. It didn’t emphasize her ability to govern, making it easier for opponents to claim she was just falling back on a “woman card”.
4. A Social Media Failure
Though it is becoming hard for me to find examples several weeks after the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s messaging and marketing heads failed to take the impact of social media seriously. On the whole, her television ads were extremely convincing, but her social media? Absolutely awful. Say what you will about Trump, but he knows how to use social. Hillary Clinton could barely handle a twitter account, let alone match Trump’s use of the form. And the infamous “tell us how you feel about student loans in three emojis” is a good example of the campaign’s lack of strong social game.
But isn’t that silly? An election shouldn’t be decided by a candidate’s mastery of certain media, in theory, but time and time again it has. Everyone remembers the JFK/Nixon debate where, if you listened on the radio, Nixon seem to win, but everyone who watched it thought JFK did thanks to his calm, cool demeanor. Winning means being able to adapt your message and person to the newest technological form, and much of her online messaging/marketing was still stuck in the 90's.
Storytelling matters. Messaging matters. Elections are decided by which candidate’s story and message resonates with a larger audience, and in this case, these failures led Hillary to have a confused, unfocused, defensive message for much of her campaign. Her story became about attacking Trump rather than boosting her own record, more about defending her past than elaborating on her vision for the future.
With smarter messaging, from slogans to branding to social media, she could’ve had a winning story, just as her husband did two decades ago. Hopefully the democratic party takes these lessons to heart for whoever their next candidate may be.
Originally published at www.nmasercola.com.