Branders-in-Chief, Part 1: Republican Presidential Campaigns

Kimberly A. Whitler and Jay Hodgkins

From “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” in 1840 to “Change We Can Believe In” in 2008, the use of branding in presidential campaigns is almost as old as the United States itself. In fact, from a marketing perspective, presidential candidates are not so different from consumer products.

Developing a brand starts with determining a superior position — what you want to stand for, relative to competitors, that matters to consumers. For example, Walmart’s position is centered on lower prices that enable customers to save money. And just as brands use taglines to communicate the essence of their positioning (e.g., Walmart’s “Save Money. Live Better” tagline), political candidates use brand slogans throughout their campaigns to stake out their positions.

In the 2016 primaries, four distinctly “branded” leading presidential candidates — Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — all had different positions they attempted to establish and own in the minds of consumers (i.e., voters). While the marketing success of a presidential candidate requires far more than slogans and advertising (what candidates do and say does matter!), this assessment serves as a simple view of the candidates’ brand positioning and ignores the other side of creating a successful brand — that of behavior and commercialization.

So whose positions seemed strongest? Start by looking at each candidate’s tagline to understand his or her position and compare it to what matters most to voters. Just as Barack Obama’s position in 2008, centered on delivering change, was more effective than John McCain’s “Country First” at identifying what voters most wanted, some candidates have done a better job this election cycle. Having a superior position is the first step. The next step is ensuring that voters know and remember what that position is. Those two components together help reveal who has the marketing savvy this election season, and who is falling short.

Part 1: Republican Campaigns


Photo credit Matt Mills McKnight, Getty Images News

Donald Trump

Tagline (i.e., Summary of Positioning): Make America Great Again!

Assumed Consumer Belief: America is in decline. This decline is holding everyday Americans back. However, America has the potential to be great again with a president who has a proven, turn-around track record.

Benefit to Voters: Trump will reverse America’s decline and restore the country to greatness.

Candidate’s Proof Points: Trump is a successful businessman who makes great business deals. He turned a $1 million loan into a $10 billion enterprise. He gets things done by being no nonsense, authentic and telling it like it is.

Brand Image[i]: Decisive (55%), Compassionate (21%), Honest (34%), Inspiring (37%), Likable (26%), Competent (40%), Could Possibly Win General Election (63%)

Tagline Unaided Awareness2: 74% had an idea of tagline; 73% knew tagline exactly

Summary: From a brand positioning angle, the Trump campaign was effective at identifying what mattered most to his target and anchoring his message on it. A weekly Rasmussen Reports telephone poll found that only about 30 percent of likely voters thought the U.S. was heading in the right direction throughout winter 2016, pointing to the broad relevance (beyond the Republican Party) of the consumer belief underlying Trump’s brand positioning.

In addition to Trump’s ability to convert an understanding of his target into arguably the strongest position, he was able to generate superior awareness of this positioning. While many have balked at Trump’s approach and rhetoric, from an awareness-generating perspective, it has been effective at garnering attention. Marketers routinely focus on return on investment (ROI), or generating the greatest amount of awareness at the least level of investment possible. This is contrary to politicians who behave as if the person with the greatest amount of money wins. Trump has demonstrated that superiority in positioning, consistency in messaging and resourcefulness in generating awareness can be more effective than wasting money on an inferior positioning.

As an example of Trump’s consistency, most every campaign rally shown on TV reinforces his positioning (Make America Great Again), while his competitors use a variety of different slogans. Trump often pasted his tagline on his forehead via a hat to ensure that voters received the message. Every sign, bumper sticker and hat reinforced over and over one message: “Trump will make America great again.”

As an example of Trump’s resourcefulness in generating a higher ROI, the podium at Trump events, aired via television news coverage for free, has a number to text to get messages from the candidate. He was the only candidate in the primary season using this free way to create a calling list.

From a marketing perspective, Trump’s positioning was arguably the strongest in the field, just as Barack Obama’s was in 2008 (focusing on hope and change). While Trump’s primary season success has defied conventional wisdom, Trump’s brand positioning is one explanation for his staying power. To actually win in the general election, Trump will need to combine his superior positioning with policies, messages, actions and behavior that effectively resonate with voters. Given his significantly high “unfavorable” ratings, this will take a marketing genius to pull off.

Ted Cruz

Tagline: Courageous Conservative; TrusTED

Assumed Consumer Belief: Conservative values are under assault. From gun rights to government spending to religious rights, nobody — including the Republican Party — is fighting for conservative principles.

Benefit to Voters: Cruz is a conservative who will fight Washington, D.C., reignite the promise of America, and defend the Constitution and values conservatives hold dear.

Candidate’s Proof Points: Cruz is a fierce advocate of the Constitution and limited government, two things necessary to reignite America. He has fought for conservative principles, authoring over 80 briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court and making nine oral arguments before the court.

Brand Image1: Decisive (35%), Compassionate (27%), Honest (27%), Inspiring (26%), Likable (27%), Competent (33%), Could Possibly Win General Election (47%)

Tagline Unaided Awareness2: 19% had an idea of tagline; 16% knew tagline exactly

Summary: Cruz’s positioning was anchored on restoring conservative values, tapping into a belief among a segment of the Republican Party that the country is losing its core principles. Cruz’s message focused on the need to restore traditional conservative principles and Christian family values to get America back on track. His campaign speeches and positions on issues often focused on protecting the Constitution and fighting for small government, which is consistent with the Tea Party movement Cruz rode to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Essentially, Cruz sought to claim the position as the right person to get America back on track because he represented the familiar conservative formula voters have supported in the past.

From purely a positioning standpoint, however, there are two challenges. First, the benefit of restoring conservative principles is only valued by a segment of the Republican Party (a small segment of the overall population, when including independents and liberals). The result is that this is a narrow positioning, appealing to a minority of voters, making it relatively weak for the upcoming general election. Second, the benefit of restoring conservative values is unclear. What does this mean for the voter?

For Darden Professor Kimberly A. Whitler’s analysis of Democratic presidential campaign positioning, please see the companion to this piece, “Branders-in-Chief, Part 2: Democratic Presidential Campaigns.”

[i] “Very” or “somewhat” – responses to The Associated Press-GfK Poll conducted by GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Relations from 11 to 15 February 2016 ( Poll surveyed 1,033 adults with 46 percent response rate, 43 percent of respondents identifying as Democrats or Democrat-leaning, 37 percent identifying as Republican or Republican-leaning and 20 percent identifying as “don’t lean.”

2 Based on an unaided awareness test of Darden supporters and friends conducted by Darden Professor Kim Whitler. Sample size = 86

About the Faculty

Kimberly A. Whitler

Whitler is an authority on marketing, with expertise in marketing strategy, brand management, and marketing performance. Her research centers on understanding how a firm’s marketing performance is affected by its C-suite and board.

A prolific writer as well as researcher, Whitler has authored nearly 100 articles related to C-level marketing management challenges... Learn More