Marketing Lessons from the Presidential Candidates

As election season heats up, candidates' advertising strategies offer takeaways for marketers.
Customer Strategy

It's unquestionable that political campaigning in the 2016 U.S. presidential race is significantly different from previous races. And digital media is helping shape that change. Today's average citizen uses multiple digital devices and platforms, making the voter journey far more complex. Politicians are similar to brand marketers in that they're trying to sell their vision to the public. And just like in business, there's a lot at stake.

So as one of the most heated presidential races in history continues its run, what lessons can we learn from the Presidential hopefuls?

Be Flexible Enough to Deliver Timely Messages
Presidential campaigns are carefully planned out several months-sometimes years in advance. However, some of the best opportunities to gain impact occur in real time. A great campaign should therefore be prepared to respond quickly to events with timely marketing messages.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign did this when her camp seemed to anticipate Donald Trump's response to her recent foreign-policy speech in which she criticized him for his lack of national security credentials. Right after her speech, Clinton's camp posted a memo with the title "Trump Literally Said All Those Things." The memo listed more than three dozen remarks from Trump that Clinton had referenced in her speech, including links to the quotes.

"Some of the comments she [Clinton] referenced are so ignorant, incoherent or outrageous, it could be hard to believe they actually came out of the mouth of the GOP's presidential nominee," the memo read. "But they literally did. All of them."

So when Trump tweeted, "In Crooked Hillary's teleprompter speech yesterday, she made up things that I said or believe but have no basis in fact. Not honest!" Clinton had a ready response on Twitter: "You literally said all those things" with a link to the memo.

The campaign's witty and well-timed response earned Clinton valuable media coverage from numerous pundits and online influencers, casting her as a savvy opponent. Similarly, businesses can boost brand awareness by delivering timely (and appropriate) responses to events.

Don't Overlook the Value of Email
Email is the workhorse of marketing compared to newer media like Snapchat and Instagram. But while it may be less exciting, results have shown that email is still effective. For example, during the 2012 presidential race, most of the $690 million that Barack Obama's campaign raised online came from fundraising emails.

"Email played an integral role in getting Obama elected," notes Tom Sather, senior director of research at email data solutions provider Return Path, "and although a lot of things are different about this race, some things remain the same like the importance of reaching people over email."

Return Path built a website called Email for President that uses data from an opt-in panel of 2.5 million email recipients to analyze the performance of the email campaigns of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. The website lets users select and compare email list size, open rates, spam rates, emails marked as spam, and emails that were deleted without opening. The result is an interesting look at the candidates' various levels of success at email campaigns.

For instance, Clinton's campaign has a larger email list than both Trump and Sanders and her emails reach about 96 percent of their targeted inboxes (the benchmark rate is about 79 percent) while Sanders' is 83 percent, and Trump's is 84 percent. However, has the highest open rate at roughly 18 percent compared to's 14 percent and's 13 percent.

In addition to paying attention to things like list size, open rates, and IP reputation, marketers should also be thinking of ways to personalize the email's content, Sather adds.

"Once you've collected data like gender, location, and other data it's important to apply that towards understanding each subscriber's journey," he says. "Is this person a new donor/customer and what is the appropriate message for that person versus a returning customer?" Especially when it's easier for consumers to delete an email rather than read it, the idea is to make your emails as relevant as possible.

Ensure You Have a Solid Cross-Channel Foundation
TV may still be the dominant destination for political ad spend, but the campaigns are becoming savvier in communicating with voters online. For example, YuMe, a video advertising company that has helped political parties create and publish videos is receiving "more and more requests to add social buttons to videos because campaigns want to make it easy for people to share their content," says Bryson Smith, VP of government affairs and advocacy at YuMe.

Another benefit of digital is that it enables companies to collect far more information about consumers than they could get from a traditional TV or print ad. The challenge is to ensure that you're using that information to also deliver a relevant and consistent brand experience across channels, Smith adds. "The pace of campaigns and the number of creative they [political campaigns] generate is tremendous. But there still isn't enough time and so they're often just repurposing TV ads across digital," Smith notes. "It's always better to take the time to create ads that are tailored for the device and audience that you're targeting."

Stretch a Tight Budget with Brand Advocates and Earned Media
Marketers can learn a lot from Sanders on how to harness the power of brand advocates; the Vermont senator's campaign has been mainly powered by the people. Crowdsourcing powers the bulk of the Sanders campaign. Since the Sanders campaign was launched about one year ago, more than 7.4 million contributions have poured in from more than 2.4 million donors totaling $210 million.

According to Open Secrets, 99.98 percent of the campaign money raised by Sanders has come from individual contributions rather than PACs, Super PACs, and other groups, compared with 96 percent for Donald Trump and 70 percent for Hillary Clinton.

User-generated content also plays a critical role in Sanders' campaign. "Coders for Sanders" is a group of web developers and designers who banded together to create digital assets for the campaign, including the website, and the app "Field the Bern," a mobile canvassing tool. The group was originally formed on Reddit, independent of the official Sanders campaign. Regardless of whether Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, his run shows how far authenticity and creativity can take a brand.

And besides Trump's shock tactics, one of the most notable things about his campaign is the fact that he has managed to grab the title of presumptive Republican presidential nominee with one of the lowest ad budgets. Clinton and Sanders have reportedly spent nearly three times as much as the Trump campaign on paid media.

At the same time, Trump's organic media coverage dwarfs all other candidates. In fact, he has earned the equivalent of $2 billion in free media, estimates a New York Times study. Of course it remains to be seen whether Trump's marketing efforts will be enough to win the election, but Trump demonstrates that a large ad budget isn't necessary for capturing your audience's attention.