As of the end of September 2016, Hillary Clinton is only 3% more likely to win the Presidency than is Donald Trump.
In marketing terms, this can be considered nothing but an embarrassment.
The Clinton campaign is offering the Presidential equivalent of an iPhone: non-transparent, complex, sometimes glitchy, but also highly versatile, powerful and sophisticated. Savvy consumers love the “product’s” extraordinary functionality and historical brand dominance. Sure, there are people off cracking into Android devices, but they’re not coming up with something functionally superior.
By contrast, the Trump campaign offers a Swarovski-crystal covered off-brand flip-phone. The technology is unsophisticated; there are a lot of things it simply can’t do. You have to push the buttons over and over to create a single message, and it might autocorrect in weird ways. The cool kids don’t carry these things around. But the non-insiders recognize it intuitively – it looks like a phone, for Pete’s sake! There’s nostalgia, comfort, and accessibility – covered in a veneer of overpriced, but nonetheless broadly appealing, sparkle.
If you were in charge of the iPhone marketing department and the off-brand flip phone were gobbling your market share, you’d be humiliated, and with good reason:
YOU HAVE THE VASTLY SUPERIOR PRODUCT AND YOU ARE LOSING.
What kind of tactical mistake can create this kind of effect in the market? Classic marketing principles can help us understand why this is happening. I’ll talk about two here.
Misunderstanding reference points
In a world full of actual news, Apple’s recent removal of the headphone jack from their newest model made headlines. Little attention was paid to the many attributes on which it should have scored points.
Similarly, the Clinton campaign laments that as in the case of the iPhone, the media focuses only on relatively trivial bumps and stumbles. By contrast, the media seems to have lost interest in point out that the flip phone is covered in fake bedazzling – Trump’s outlandish or patently untrue statements barely make a ripple at this point.
We can all pretend horror and surprise at this media pattern, but a basic understanding of Prospect Theory could have allowed us (and Clinton’s campaign) to predict this pattern.
Prospect Theory says that all judgments are made relative to a standard, or reference point. One feels losses from that reference point more acutely than they feel gains, a phenomenon called loss aversion. Further, we feel each event in a series of small losses very acutely. However, if we experience a big enough loss, eventually, additional small blips don’t matter that much anymore. That is, the pain curve flattens out after a certain point.
Some marketers use this insight well when they develop their pricing schemes: all-inclusive vacations present one big loss, thereby reducing the overall pain of payment we feel during our vacation. By contrast, others fail to consider the effects of many small, separate costs – airlines that charge separate fees for seat choices, checked bags, and in-flight refreshments are likely causing their consumers much more pain than they would if they rolled those charges into a slightly higher overall price.
Donald Trump is using Prospect Theory more successfully than is Hillary Clinton right now. His many early, outrageous statements took voters to the bottom of the pain curve quickly – and effectively shifted the reference point against which he’s evaluated. Things that should damage him don’t even hurt anymore, no matter how much the media talks about them.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has fought to admit no wrongdoing even in the face of fairly strong evidence that someone probably made a mistake. While this protection of her high status may have *felt* like a wise move, it ignored human psychology. It means that even Clinton’s tiny little gaffes look very bad, over and over again. That’s not the media’s fault – it’s the way people work. And right now, Trump is using this marketing tool much more successfully than Clinton is.
You don’t make it easy, and you don’t sell the difficulty well
Researchers have identified a powerful phenomenon called a fluency effect. When consumers find something easy to understand, they misattribute that ease of processing to liking. People also believe that things that are easy to understand are true. Hence, Trump’s simple speech patterns feel trustworthy. The flip phone that looks like a phone feels familiar, so we trust it to work. He’s “telling it like it is” – because he’s telling it like people can understand it.
The Clinton campaign has never done much to make Hillary easy to understand. She’s not user-friendly, and they’ve known that for some time. From a marketing angle, this creates risks – that her disfluency will reinforce a sense that she lacks trustworthiness.
Refusing to dumb-down Clinton is a matter of principle, to some extent, and we can respect that. Being President isn’t about making everything simple, and it would be a major change to her brand to reduce her to monosyllables.
However, the campaign has other options, because disfluency can have benefits. First, they can motivate voters to get through the difficulty. Voters who are motivated enough to do this may actually be more loyal than those who would have seen a dumbed-down version of the candidate’s positions. There’s some hope here in ratings forecasts for the first debate – some well-timed advertisements during the televised event could feel like “rewards,” as could some well-timed zingers from Secretary Clinton. We’ll see if voters are ultimately motivated enough to listen.
Second, the Clinton campaign could work to connect difficulty to intelligence or innovativeness. If you’re going to be inescapably complex, that can be OK – as long as you make it clear why things are complicated. By failing to connect Hillary Clinton’s complexity to an image of sophistication and innovation, her campaign is both suffering from disfluency and failing to make the most of her intelligence as an asset.
Why this marketing failure matters
From a marketing perspective, the Clinton campaign has undermined the years of investment that has gone into building a truly impressive candidate. No company can flourish by failing this spectacularly in their marketing, no matter how objectively superior their offerings may be.
And in the political context, marketing failure has long-term implications. To return to our initial analogy, if the new iPhone fails, other Apple products or foundations lose funding – and those are products that might offer help to the disabled, be used to address global poverty, or open doors to new advancements in medicine. Failure of a flagship product will take down the fleet. And that may have massive repercussions.
Now, the Clinton campaign may say that this is all part of their master plan, and that the market will just have to trust them. This kind of gambit has worked for Apple before; we all figured out how to use iPods and have rewired our brains around the iPhone’s interface.
Here’s where the technology market metaphor ends, though: when we choose a cell phone, we invest in learning how it works. It becomes an integrated part of our lives. In the end, we may become extremely brand loyal, because it becomes an extension of ourselves.
But politics isn’t like that. The winner of a presidential race doesn’t become an extension of ourselves – rather, they’re embedded in a system that may be extremely hostile. Rather than learning how to make the most of their capacity, individuals actively work against their success. If the Clinton campaign pulls out a win, the practices that generated the present polling situation need to be changed. After all, Presidential contracts last only 4 years. For the Democratic party to survive, the flip phone needs to look worse, not better, next time around.