What Your Brand Can Learn From the 2016 Election Cycle

What Your Brand Can Learn From the 2016 Election Cycle Jeff Barrett Blogger Extraordinaire Simply Measured

It’s hard to analyze politics objectively. Political discussion produces strong emotions. It’s one of the five things you are not allowed to talk about in polite company, along with money, sex, religion, and the status of your fantasy football team.

But what we are seeing in this 2016 election cycle transcends politics. It is a real-life, constantly-adapting blueprint on how to use media, earn media, and own media discussion. These lessons can be directly and immediately applied to any business, service, or banana stand. And there’s always money in the banana stand.

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So, for the next five minutes, try to separate your politics from the equation and look purely at how the campaigns use both traditional and social media.

Whether in keynotes or with clients, I have been discussing the changing media landscape for the last two years. Some tactics have absolutely stopped working. The well has run dry. Always, though, it’s easier to show than it is to tell. The success of Donald Drumpf and Bernie Sanders or the failure of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio isn’t random. It can absolutely be explained.

Candidates don’t win elections. Campaigns win elections.

We had a model for predicting elections. In 2012, Nate Silver could not miss.

The narrative in 2016, however, is that everything is unpredictable. That’s wrong. Tactically, Drumpf has been masterful.

He has generated over $2 billion in free publicity. Yes, some of that is because he has 100% name recognition, but a lot of it comes down to tactics.

Bernie Sanders had very little name recognition before this election. He didn’t have a large social media following. Yet, his campaign is also masterfully using new media.

If a 74-year-old senator from Vermont can mobilize millennials, then so can you. Your brand is now fresh out of excuses.

Brands can and should learn a lot from these two campaigns.

So let’s get to it.

Step 1: Understand the Media

Before 1994, traditional media tried its absolute hardest to be unbiased. For the most part, it was. Sure, tabloids already existed, but reporting was fair and the emphasis was on news rather than ratings.

There were plenty of people that year who thought no one would want to watch 24/7 courtroom coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. They were all wrong.

After that, opinion, rather than reporting, began to creep in more and more. That’s not a judgement, but a fact. Cable news outlets grew in size and number. In the 2000’s, digital outlets began to grow and challenge print. Eventually, there were hundreds of news sources.

When there were five news sources, it was easy to be fair and objective. But when you’re competing with hundreds of outlets, you have to stand out and take a side to have a position in the marketplace. Fox News, MSNBC, and others know that there’s no business model in the middle. It’s also why ESPN has embraced debate.

Love or hate Stephen A. Smith, the man drives ratings.

Step 2: Be Interesting. Be Aggressive.

The candidates that wanted to stick to the issues have been home for months. That’s not interesting to the mass consumer. That doesn’t get ratings. Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and others could not get people interested.

Rubio had an opportunity, but he was using an old playbook. He was calculated, attempting every time to say the right thing so it wouldn’t offend. That doesn’t get coverage — it only gave Drumpf more coverage.

On the democratic side, Sanders has been aggressive from day one. He is a career politician, yet he’s not viewed that way. Why? Because he’s saying things a politician wouldn’t dare say, even four years ago.

He had no expectations. No one expected him to compete, let alone win states (aside from maybe Vermont). He has had nothing to lose. It’s a successful mindset.

How does this apply to brands? Being safe doesn’t work anymore. Even people defined as “conservative” are now being incredibly aggressive. You have to be. There are so many ways to get news. The competition has never been greater. Going forward, media coverage will always favor the interesting, bold, daring, and different.

Step 3: It’s Not Your Message. It’s How You Deliver It.

There are packages that don’t work anymore. People don’t want to unwrap a banner ad or a political commercial. That’s not how they want to be informed. Jeb Bush, a front-runner to most, spent over $100 million on political attack ads. He never finished better than fourth place. Marco Rubio used similar tactics.

Both are now afterthoughts. It’s not that their message was right or wrong. People connect better to people they know and trust. It’s why social influence, blog sites, and other forms of new media create far more trust than something people have seen for decades.

This is cyclical. Eventually we’ll find a way to not trust new media. Delivery methods always have to change. But it’s imperative to use data and understand what gets a response and what doesn’t.

Going into this election, there were a few obvious truths. People didn’t trust politicians, attack ads turned people away, and the field on the GOP side was crowded. That didn’t take data to know. It seems even more obvious now than it did when this process started.

The way to win the election in 2016 has been to not be a politician, be interesting, be controversial, deliver your message through social, make conventional media have to cover it, and establish trust from the beginning.

Right or wrong, that’s where we are. Wishing the media landscape was different won’t make it so. That genie is out of the bottle and you can’t let it rub you the wrong way.

So embrace it.

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Jeff Barrett

Jeff Barrett is Business Insider's #1 Ad Executive on Twitter, a Forbes Top 50 Social Media Influencer, a PRNewswire Earnie Award winner for Best Use of Video In Social Media, and a 2015 Shorty Award Best Business Blogger. He believes that, in PR, you are only as good as the relationships you develop and the dots you can connect.