Professor-Author Bruce Newman Looks at State of Political Marketing

DePaul University Marketing Professor Bruce Newman is one of the world's leading experts on political marketing. He has published numerous books and journal articles on political marketing and consumer psychology. Newman briefly served under President Bill Clinton in 1995 to advise senior aides on communication strategy. In this Q&A, we discuss with Newman the one-year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election and his new book, “Brand” (published by Kendall-Hunt, August 2017) which is co-written with his son, Todd Newman.

What are some marketing lessons that can be learned from the 2016 election?

One of the biggest lessons that can be learned from campaign marketing (during the 2016 Presidential Election) is that the campaign has become less political and more marketing-oriented.

The whole point of our new book, “Brand,” is that there are best marketing practices when we look at the branding of six entities: people, services, products, organizations, nations and complex ideas. All six of these entities get wrapped up into a political campaign—a politician is a person (people) represented by a political party (organization), within a nation, offering public service to citizens (service), via a campaign platform (product), which issues policies (complex ideas). If you can glean the best practices from the six entities and put them in a framework, which in our book we call the three Cs—customer, competition and channel—you will be a more effective marketer.

The most important step is identifying who is your customer. That issue is becoming fragmented. We have a bigger variety of voters who care about different issues, and you cannot easily put people in a group—or political party—anymore. The competition, when it comes to politics, is very complex when you compare it to the commercial marketplace. You are not just running against another candidate, you are also running against a slew of world leaders.

Look at how Russia got involved with our campaign because they thought Trump would be better for Russia than Clinton. You are broadening your range of competition, and your channels are changing. Your channels are global today through social media, newspapers, internet, etc.

Money is another huge issue. Political contributions have been linked to freedom of speech. There is nothing to stop political parties and campaigns to spending a lot of money on advertising. This is the direction where we are going. More and more marketing driven.

What are the keys for winning the 2020 presidential election?

What I think will be key in 2020 from a technological standpoint is the ability to get information across to people at any point in time. The best way to do that is through mobile technology. However, in terms of strategy, I think it is going to be a very interesting presidential race in 2020. We still have yet to see what is to happen with Trump regarding North Korea and the Mueller investigation. We call these situational factors in the marketing arena—when there is uncertainty in business because unforeseen things happen.

I predict that 2020 is going to be a mega-money campaign. I think the role of political parties will become less significant. I think all of this will put more influence into the hands of the consultants—the social media experts and technicians who understand how to get messages to targeted voters in an efficient and effective manner.

The only other factor in the 2020 election is to expect the unexpected. Any time an administration has been in office during a state of war, they have won an election. War could be a function of marketing. Declaration of war could have as much to do with being re-elected as it does with the principles of an administration. It’s not beyond the realm of reason to say we haven't gone to war in the past for those reasons. While I was working in the Clinton White House, I witnessed that once you get in, you immediately want to get re-elected. Winning is an aphrodisiac for power.

What made former President Barack Obama a successful campaign marketer in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections?

What made Obama successful, along with Donald Trump in 2016, is that there was a movement behind what he represented. Movements are very powerful marketing tools in politics. Obama had a strong brand identity that people could relate to and he had his finger on the pulse of the nation. What people wanted was a candidate who is refreshing and not in the same mold of politicians that we have seen year after year. Another huge part of Obama’s success was the use of technology, social media and micro-targeting to effectively communicate and distribute the ideas that the candidate represents. Obama was able to use technology to create a direct channel of distribution between candidates and the voter, circumventing traditional media.

Did the two major party candidates in 2016 use Obama’s campaign marketing strategies?

Yes, and the technology had gotten much more sophisticated in the four years since the 2012 election. Both campaigns had models built on the behavior of citizens, and anyone working on each campaign was capable of accessing thousands of data points within milliseconds so that they could target the right people to get donations from, to find volunteers, or to get some magazine to write an article and get media coverage. Micro-targeting was exceedingly sophisticated to the point where the Trump campaign was able to narrow down specific precincts in key states that eventually won the election for them.

In addition, like Obama, Trump had a strong brand that was able to stand out as unique and different from the competition. Whereas the real success with Obama was the research, micro-targeting, and big data, the real answer to Trump’s success was brand. Even with the best data and the best research, if you have a flawed product, it is tough to get people to respond to you if you do not respond to their needs and wants. Somehow, there has to be a connection between the emotions of your audience and what it is you are offering to them. When you juxtapose Trump against Clinton, he was able to leverage the weaknesses of Clinton’s campaign and at the same time generate a response from his base, which were many blue collar workers who felt like they weren't being represented well by Democrats. Trump succeeded, Hillary Clinton did not.​​