November 2, 2016

Can we top Trump?


We are just days away from knowing who the 45th President of the United States will be, the second of two defining political campaigns this year, along with the EU Referendum vote.

But what are the lessons learned for corporates?

Back in late June, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, we had an event at our offices in London about negative campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic. By UK standards, the referendum campaign on both sides of the divide had broken new ground – and not in a good way.

We asked whether we could top Trump. Well, if only we knew then what we know now.

If we were thinking about it in terms of Top Trumps, this US Presidential Campaign has been the USS Eisenhower to our HMS Ark Royal of a Referendum campaign. It has been personal, spiteful, and acrimonious, like no previous election on either side of the Pond. It has plumbed new depths.

There is usually a read across from what starts in US politics.

In the past this has sometimes been a force for good. It is almost unbelievable to think that back in the mists of time – yes, of 2008 – President Obama won the first Facebook Election – “the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the web.” This has morphed in ever more sophisticated ways – in both the Brexit campaign and the US election – of data crunching and targeting messages according to voters’ values.

Another development in both campaigns is the establishment of post-truth campaigning – appealing to the emotional, the relentless repetition of messages, even when rebutted by fact. Why let facts get in the way of a good story, eh? And then there are the slogans: Vote Leave’s Taking Back Control or Trump’s #crookedhillary.

Accurate or not, they are effective because they stick in your brain. Even Bill Clinton, a master craftsman when it comes to the nuances of the spoken word, got Hillary’s campaign slogan confused the other day. I am not surprised by the mixed message.

So what are the key themes we can learn from the political word and apply to the corporate one?

One. This is about the art of storytelling and the clarity of message – in an increasingly complex world it is more important than ever to keep the core of the story simple.

Two. Science of targeting – the digital approach to both campaigns is at the cutting edge of communications and influencer strategies. Smart, focused and getting maximum bang for the buck.

Three. Post-post truth. The old adage is that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. These campaigns have been more in graffiti than poetry. But if you go for the post-truth option you will get caught out at sooner or later. You might get a short term gain from your key audiences but there will be long term pain if there is a breakdown of trust. Switching of future votes, stocks or brand loyalty is the likely outcome.

It is easier to burn bridges than build them. The best approach is looking after the bridge in the first place.