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Counselor Commentary: Promo Products Predicted the Election

After the results were in and Donald Trump was named President-elect of the United States, it became clear to us here at Counselor that promotional products propelled him to the White House. Our reporting over the past year showed how he outspent each of his opponents in the primary and general election on promotional items, and his use of them was rampant. Yes, the ubiquitous red hat certainly led the charge.

So, Counselor editors Andy Cohen and C.J. Mittica exchanged emails this morning examining the trend and trying to uncover why and how promotional products became a driving force in this presidential election.

Andy Cohen: Never have we seen an election result so clearly determined by the use of promo products. Let’s put politics aside here – it has nothing to do with this. Hats and bumper stickers and yard signs and pens and mugs and T-shirts are what led a political outsider to take the country by storm.

We wrote about it during the height of the primary season more than six months ago, and I’m not even sure we fully believed it at the time. But, the candidate that spent the most on promotional items – Donald Trump – won the Republican primary in an upset and now rode the promotional products wave to the White House. He capitalized on messaging that resonated and used a wealth of promo items to spread that message.

We even had him on video at the Power Summit last week – yes, held at his National Doral property in Miami – welcoming our audience to the conference while wearing a Make America Great Again hat. While Hillary Clinton spent gobs of money on television, radio and online ads, none of it connected with voters like Trump’s promotional products did.

Do you think there’s now a new roadmap to election success, with promotional products leading the way?

C.J. Mittica: I think the answer is yes, but not an unequivocal yes. It falls back to something our magazines have talked about thousands of times – you can’t just slap a logo on a promotional product and expect success. You need a message that resonates. You need a story to tell.

That definitely played out in this surprising, historic, shocking, yuuuuge (I’m running out of adjectives here) election. Yes, Trump greatly outspent Hillary on promotional products, but it’s not that Hillary didn’t use promotional products at all. Her campaign website had dozens of unique, well-designed, engaging items. But the messages she rooted her campaign in – of temperament and personality (“Love Trumps Hate”) and the historic possibility of a woman winning The White House – did not reverberate enough within the hearts and minds of Americans.

Trump, on the other hand, cast himself as a truth-telling outsider and pitted himself against the Washington establishment. He hatched a slogan – “Make America Great Again” – that tapped into the vein of frustration and disillusionment running through this country, and then spent millions on promotional products to drive that message home. It resonated, and the Trump promo gear became a badge of honor for millions of Americans. What did I see last night when they showed Trump’s victory party? A sea of red hats.

Elections are one big, very long and very expensive marketing campaign. What key marketing lessons do you think we can take from this election?

Andy: Know your audience. That’s what Trump and his team did so much better than Clinton did. In fact, I’m not sure Clinton ever really knew who she was talking to. So, your point about messaging is vital. All the promotional products in the world and television ads in the world won’t work unless they’re clearly targeted.

That’s what Trump did so well. “Make America Great Again,” whether you agreed with the sentiment or not, was brilliant. “I’m With Her”? Not so much. It doesn’t even say anything and it makes everything all about, well, “her.” The messaging was so garbled from the Clinton side, and it’s easy to say it now, but people react to clear marketing and messaging. Trump, for all his craziness, pretty much stayed on message and hammered home “Make America Great Again” at every possible turn. It worked.

People bought into it so much that the election really could have been predicted by the use of yard signs and bumper stickers. Anecdotally, so many people you speak to say they saw yard signs for Trump on lawns where they’ve never seen political yard signs before. Brian Williams on MSNBC last night, when it became apparent that the tide was going Trump’s way, said “No one counted the yard signs.”

His point? Pollsters ran numbers until they were blue in the face, but they were all wrong, because nobody really took the pulse of the electorate in key states. Where was the pulse of the people? On front lawns, with one of the most popular election promo products there is, and we all missed it.

C.J.: The same phenomenon took place in 2008. “Hope” and the Obama “O” were everywhere. Our society has become trained to broadcast its views – not just on social media, but the T-shirts we wear, the yard signs we put out, the cases we slip on our phones, you name it.

Promotional products have been a part of every presidential election (yes, even Washington, first name George). But I think it’s marketing malpractice to call them ancillary in today’s age. President Obama used “collateral” to raise tens of millions of dollars and mobilize his fervent base. Bernie Sanders, a 75-year-old former independent, won over Millennials with the help of millions spent on promo products. And then there’s our new President-elect.

Trump’s promotional product strategy was fascinating. Not that he spent millions on them; again, Obama and others have too. It’s the fact that he leaned so hard on swag in lieu of other time-tested campaign practices, like extensive voter polling or TV ad blitzes. He ran much of his campaign on intuition instead of convention. Pundits chastised him, many mocked him, but it worked. Donald Trump proved a lot of people wrong.

I’m not sure that future candidates will just do away with so many established practices like Trump did. But I do believe spending on promotional products is here to stay.

Andy: Others, though, absolutely need to learn from Trump's success. Very simply, clear messaging wins. Not to sound like Trump here, but so many political candidates (and companies, by the way) are losers because they don't have clear positioning and the means to spread that message.

Hello, promo products! They helped spread Trump's very simple and clear message. Future candidates that don't learn from that will also not win.

C.J.: Let’s not forget that Trump actually wore his signature hat early and often. It made his message visible, and sales of the cap skyrocketed. This will sound looney to anyone who doesn’t work in this industry, but I absolutely believe it’s true: a red ball cap legitimized Donald Trump’s candidacy.

By the way, he’s not the only one wearing his own gear. I saw Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey yesterday wearing a vest with his name and logo. We tell distributors all the time to wear your own stuff. If Trump’s example doesn’t make that clear … well, I can’t help you.

Andy: Do you think he’ll still wear the hat when he’s in the White House? Or, will it be a hat with a different message?

C.J.: If he wants to switch it up, I got a few ideas: Trump Tower – D.C. Office. The Donald States of America. Ivanka For President 2024.