Ad man to progressives: Use the power of branding to defeat Trump

President Donald Trump's unemployment order was met with confusion by state officials. Photo by Getty Images.

Branding is usually thought of as more a corporate than a political thing, but progressives should consider how good marketing can help them in a time of chaos, distraction and fiction spun out of the White House.

Our president is gifted with a con artist’s eye for misdirection. He launches new controversies at a dizzying rate, often well-timed to distract attention from bad news hitting the administration.

It can be as dumb as a rant about the way the presidential toilet flushes. It can be deadly serious. President Trump took the nation to the brink of war when he ordered the killing of Iran’s military leader Qassim Suleimani. The trust that would at one time have allowed us to believe that it was purely an act of national self-defense was long ago squandered.

The election year begins with the narrative once again spinning wildly away from the important things we should be talking about.

I’ve spent my career in advertising, so I know what he’s doing. We call this hijacking the conversation, and it’s a useful way to grab attention. When the occupant of the Oval Office does it, he’s holding the biggest megaphone in the world.

Journalists and politicians alike struggle to find a response that doesn’t merely amplify the disruption.

Again, turning to advertising, we use brand narratives to hold the attention of an easily distracted public — and create space in the midst of all the competing noise for actual communication to happen.

An example: When Apple found themselves getting thoroughly beaten by Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system, the struggling company responded with a larger narrative about people having the courage and foresight to “Think Different.” It helped set Apple on its course to becoming the powerhouse we know today.

Good brand stories work because they target the emotions. We humans like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, but research suggests otherwise. A study drawing from the IPA Databank of British ad campaigns found emotional appeals were more than twice as effective as rational arguments.

I spent a dozen years working on ads for Harley-Davidson, another brand that came back strong after a near-death experience. Like Apple, we didn’t let ourselves get baited into chasing competitive arguments. Instead, we worked from a list of timeless American truths like freedom, independence, brotherhood and sisterhood to describe a life that couldn’t be lived any other way.

Good brand stories work because they target the emotions. We humans like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, but research suggests otherwise. A study drawing from the IPA Databank of British ad campaigns found emotional appeals were more than twice as effective as rational arguments.

One of the most successful ads we did for Harley had the headline, “It’s not a rational decision.”

It’s hard to know how precisely this transfers to the political sphere — we need more research, to be sure.

Here’s what I would do:

First, boil down all the noise and disruption coming out of the president’s messaging machine. What you get is pretty simple. Disconnect from people who aren’t like us, and retreat from the world. The counter to that is equally simple – connect and move forward. That’s the central message.

Then think about the surrounding emotional territory. Connecting and moving forward feels progressive. It’s also America’s story. From the start America has been a grand social experiment. We the People make our share of mistakes, but at our best we come together and push ahead toward something brighter.

Wharton’s Patti Williams’ research finds compelling responses to messages that evoke feelings of “pride and awe,” with awe being defined as a connection to something larger.

That idea of something larger brings us back again to the big American themes, which made such strong emotional connections when I was writing Harley ads. Conveniently for progressives, we can take many of the ideals that were once Republican bulwarks until Trump — like truth, justice, faith and family — and make them ours. The Shining City Upon the Hill. The writing on the Statue of Liberty.

The story might sound something like this. The deep state is a fiction. But there are deep American truths, and they haven’t changed. Some have lost faith and are letting our country slip backwards. There are more of us who believe America’s best days are in front of us, if we stay true to her promise of freedom, justice and equality for all. That’s what’s in our grasp if we come together and rediscover our voice.

We know the topic of the day is going to shift seismically. But we can and should anchor our arguments in something larger and more enduring. It won’t happen fast. But over time it can help us raise the price of constant disruption, and begin an authentic conversation that will no longer include Trump.