What marketers can learn from the US election (no really)

There may not be much we can learn about branding from Trump or strategy from Biden, but the US election has made one thing very clear: marketers need to come to terms with who some of their customers are.

Sitting in my living room late one evening, as the miserable Swedish autumn outside loudly reminded me of its existence through rain seemingly falling sideways onto the windows, I discovered a YouTube video of a lecture by Christopher Hitchens.

Detailing his journey to then communist Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s for an article on the underground democratic movement, he recalls how he was adamant not to do the cliché and reference Kafka. “Whatever they do to me,” he told himself, “I will not do it.”

However, it did not take long before he found himself thrown up against a concrete wall by members of the secret police clad in ominously black overcoats. Someone had, evidently, given up the location for the gathering he had just attended. Demanding to know why he was being arrested, an officer snarled back: “We don’t have to tell you.”

“Fuck,” thought Hitchens. “I’m going to have to reference Kafka after all.”

That is the thing about totalitarianism – it is fundamentally cliché, its expression a plethora of platitudes.

When it comes to marketing columns, the cliché any writer worth their salt will try to avoid is ‘what can marketers learn from [insert event here]’. The answer is always very little and never what the article claims.

But as I noticed marketers’ reactions to the outcome of the American election and the ousting of a wannabe totalitarian, I realised that, fuck, I too have to do the cliché. I am going to have to pen something about what they can learn from the event because, clearly, there are things they can.

No need to panic. I will not waste your time by pointlessly going into analysis about the brand persona of Donald Trump’s hair or revealing the five key insights from Joe Biden’s apparently many millennia walking upon this earth.

Nor will I but barely mention the significant difference between what people say they will do when someone is looking and what they actually do when nobody is. After all, the fact that survey radicals become fiscal conservatives when it is their own money on the line should not come as a surprise (though it still far too often does).

No, what marketers can learn from the US election is this: a very large part of the American populace voted for Donald Trump. In fact, so many did that he would have won any other US election in history.

That more people voted for the sitting president than for Barack Obama in either of his two elections is almost unfathomable to marketers.

As research by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray demonstrated, markters tend to have a rather more metropolitan, socially liberal lean than the modern mainstream. Being part of an aspirational class defined in equal measures by shared cultural capital and social values, to paraphrase Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in The Sum of Small Things, few would even entertain the thought of voting for the fake-tanned man who has spent the previous four years in office.

But, crucially, many of their buyers would.

If marketers are to continue to be the voice of the consumer, sooner or later we will have to come to terms with who that consumer is.

When marketers argue about the importance of social cause advertising, brand purpose, belief-based marketing or whatever term one feels like using but a normal person would inevitably sneer at, they do so based on their values. Values that almost half of their buyers might not share. Values that might lead those buyers to look elsewhere.

It may feel good to reduce cognitive dissonance by painting with a broad brush in black and white, and claiming that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist, of course. But such binary reductionism might also lead one to, for example, the logical conclusion that anyone who voted Labour is anti-Semitic. Neither is true.

One might also argue that the brands for whom the marketers work would not want those buyers anyway. Sure. It is a rather easy declaration to make when one has little personal stake in the performance of the business, however, and particularly when one does not have to face someone who does. Skin in the game makes leaving a lot of money on the table a rather different matter.

The – to many uncomfortable – truth is that the average guy or gal in the US is about as likely to be a Biden devotee as a Trump supporter. Similarly, the average lad or lass in the UK is about as likely to have voted for Brexit as against it. And, at the end of the proverbial Covid-lockdown day, the average buyer of the average brand is likely to be the average person on the street.

I am not telling you what to do. In fact, unlike most other columnists, I actively try to avoid it. But I would encourage you to at least consider the implications.

It is not that we as individuals should not take a stand, on the contrary. And just to be absolutely clear, I would not have voted for Trump either. But on a marketing level, if we are to continue to be the voice of the consumer, sooner or later we will have to come to terms with who that consumer is.

If we do not, consumer obsession becomes yet another cliché. And we know from Hitchens that we should do our very best to avoid those.

After all, it is a trademark of populism to deny the existence of anyone who does not support it. And most agreed with voting that out.

JP Castlin is the chief executive of international consultancy Rouser and a strategy keynote speaker