Did Bad Marketing Cost Trump the Election?

Popping the cork of a Tesco Finest prosecco bottle might sound like standard practice at Katie Lingo HQ, but last Saturday there was a reason: the defeat of Donald Trump.

Trump supporters, look away now. You’re about to see a scathing, although balanced, attack on your man.

For all his money, Twitter followers, 72 million votes and hubris, Donald J. Trump made history on Saturday night.

Quite apart from his views on women, minorities or the working classes, I am personally ecstatic to see someone with such a myopic view on climate change out of the Oval Office. We all fit into our own communities, but global warming does not discriminate. Let’s hope the next four years signal the environmental step change we so desperately need.

Moving on.

The two candidates’ marketing tactics

So, was it one of the lowest approval ratings in history that lost Trump the election, or something else?

Biden took the traditional route…in the beginning

You may have heard various stats about Trump investing more in YouTube than ever before. Biden, knowing that 82 per cent of his audience were aged 45 and above, started with television advertising.

In fact, Biden was predicted to spend $220 million on TV ads from August onwards, compared to a paltry $60 million on digital. Part of the expense may have been down to the format of the ads. While Biden favoured 60-second television ads, Trump preferred 15-second digital slots.

The Democrats didn’t miss a trick, though. As the election drew nearer and nearer, they turned to online channels, with a particular focus on Facebook.

Trump presses on with digital

It might seem prudent for Trump’s team to have prioritised digital from the off, particularly given their success in the 2016 campaign. The Republicans spent $151 million on Facebook ads straight away, again, focusing on an older demographic.

Both parties knew that older citizens were more likely to vote – so what exactly did Trump get wrong? Perhaps he was relying too much on his already solid social media presence: a formidable 89 million Twitter followers.

In reality, it all came down to messaging.

Biden took the personal approach

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from marketing in recent years, it’s that authenticity matters. It’s hard to be authentic when you don’t put your face on a campaign.

In a moving YouTube ad from last August, Biden recounted the tragic loss of his son to cancer.  However cynically this ad could be perceived, it addressed an imperative issue and spoke to us in the first person.

Fast forward to October 2020, and Trump is tweeting videos of himself dancing to the Village People. But on a serious note, even when we analyse the body language of the pair at the debates, we see a difference. Biden addresses the camera. It’s almost prophetic – a man ready to meet his public.

Trump gets on the defensive

Speaking of body language, here’s an even more interesting insight. I’m not alone when I say I’ve noticed Trump uses very ‘defensive’ body language while speaking in public. Poised for incoming attacks, the Trump campaign allegedly bid on Google Ads keywords including:

  • “how to impeach trump”
  • “trump fraud”
  • “trump is a disaster”

If what Agility PR says is true (and it’s hard for me to test since the election is over, and I’m in the UK), that does suggest some degree of self-awareness. Despite appearances, someone on the Republican team must be aware of such views.

Meanwhile, Trump was also doing a little attacking of his own. In a typically ad hominem fashion, Trump ran a Facebook campaign called “The Official Democrat Corruption Accountability Survey”. This was followed by a plea for donations, naturally.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, had a key mission to avoid giving Trump material to use against them. Hillary’s emails, anyone?

Focusing on the here and now

But while Biden did well to learn from history, he also excelled at living in the present moment. We all know the marketing value of newsjacking in 2020, but this was not a vanity PR campaign. We are living in a real pandemic, and addressing that pandemic was a key pillar of the Democrat campaign.

The Democrats took the wise (and indeed, innovative) decision to hold virtual rallies. Trump, meanwhile, stuck to the old faithful crowded events which won him his first presidency. Some were even linked to 700 COVID deaths.

At first glance, this looks like little more than Trump’s ego playing up once again. But from a marketing perspective, and indeed, a political one, it shows that the Democrats had the foresight to adapt. Fail to evolve, and you fall victim to what we marketers like to call strategic drift.

Dirty tactics

You didn’t expect Trump to campaign honestly, did you? Well, it turns out, both candidates played a little dirty this year. Except while Biden’s could be classed as making the best of a bad situation, Trump’s was plainly misleading.

In a hilariously ‘up-yours’ move, the Democrat Party bought the domain that would become Trump’s 2021 slogan: Keep America Great. The site soon became a list of Trump’s failures. Very sly, Democrats.

Trump’s team apparently saw a loophole in Facebook advertising. The site expressly banned any ads “suggesting a premature victory”. However, ads stating “President Trump is STILL your President” slipped through the net, as his term continues until January regardless.

In a more slippery technique, the Republican party apparently used ‘bait and switch’ tactics in their email marketing. Examples included subject lines pertaining to the new Supreme Court Choice, with no mention in the body text whatsoever. What was mentioned? You guessed it – a plea for donations.

When all’s said and done, Biden was more targeted

The whole Republican campaign appears to have been one comedy of errors after another. We haven’t even started on the Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle.

That’s not to say that Biden’s was perfect, by any means. In fact, SEO analyses show his site appeared overly ‘busy’, as well as basic errors such as multiple H1s and missing alt text. Trump’s Facebook campaigns fared better thanks to more ad variants.

But overall, the Democrat campaign was more targeted; it addressed issues that mattered…and it wasn’t Trump.

Biden’s team ran personalised email campaigns based on previous donation history. They trialled advertising on sites like WebMD (note healthcare, a crucial focus) as well as FunnyOrDie, Patheos and GearPatrol. They also ran targeted TV campaigns in swing states, rather than using national channels like Trump did.

By experimenting with new audiences, they were able to win over undecided voters. This resulted in the flip of key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

What have we learnt here?

You could almost forgive Trump for thinking he could get through the election based on reputation alone. Let’s not forget he still has a loyal following of 72 million voters. This cult of personality won him the key votes in 2016. According to Smart Media Group, Trump spent just $10 million on owned media in 2016, but accrued almost $2 billion in earned media.

But four years is a long time in politics. So what have we learnt, as marketers?

  • Be authentic and don’t hide behind a brand
  • Target campaigns based on historical data
  • Use the here and now to plan ahead
  • Adapt to changing situations
  • Don’t lie.

2020 was a record-breaking year for voter turnout. Let’s see if America can be great again.

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Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
12th November 2020