Trump & the Power of the Tagline
Amidst the blow-by-blow coverage of Donald Trump, and by association, the other candidates (including Democrats), there has been surprisingly little said about the 2016 candidates’ taglines and their impact, or lack thereof, thus far. This post should not be construed as an endorsement or opinion of any candidate, just their brand strategies as represented through their use of campaign taglines.
To understand the power of a tagline, look no further than Barack Obama’s success in 2008 with his two taglines: “Hope” and “Change We Can Believe In.”
A tagline, at its best, is shorthand for one’s brand strategy; the distillation of highly strategic positioning versus the competition, into it’s briefest, most poignant expression. Taking a well-positioned brand strategy, making it approachable via a strong tagline and presenting it with charisma and entertainment, is the winning strategy Donald Trump has employed with “Let’s Make America Great Again.”
In one of my blog posts about Taglines, I identified the five characteristics of a great tagline: Simplicity, Clarity, Branded, Unique, Benefit-Driven. I would add one more, “Flexible.” When a tagline is flexible, one can build meaning in multiple ways.
With “Let’s Make America Great Again,” Trump meets all of the above criteria. Just as Obama understood the deep fear and cynicism of his time and leveraged that emotion, Trump uniquely understands that people need to believe America can still be the strong country we were, with strong leadership. His tag line implies that America is no longer great because of it’s current leadership. It also implies that making America strong again is a collaborative process between Trump and the voters — by means of the word “Let’s.” The tagline is flexible in that it gives Trump a forum to define all of his reasons why the current administration has made us less than great, i.e. immigration, defense, healthcare and so forth. Trump also understands that social media and the 24/7 news cycle have devolved to the point that a leader, among other things, needs to be “entertainer-in-chief,” to be electable. Obama saw this trend during his campaign, and the evolution of social media over the last seven years makes it more true today.
In April, Hillary Clinton launched her campaign with the tag line, “It’s Your Time,” which failed the “clarity” test. People thought she was talking about herself and not the public. Her subsequent silence allowed that perception to calcify into perceived fact. Since then, she appears to have dropped the tagline, in favor of “Hillary! 2016.”
If you compare “It’s Your Time” or “Hillary! 2016” to “Let’s Make America Great again,” it’s apparent who has the more well-articulated, benefit-driven message. And that’s just the rational argument. Emotion is the other side of any brand. What sort of emotion does “It’s Your Time” or “Hillary! 2016” provide, other than “anything but Trump!?”
Similarly, Jeb Bush, the heretofore expected Republican nominee, has assumed the same strategy that Hillary has adopted with his tepid “Jeb! 2016.”
Below are some of the other candidate tag lines:
Ben Carson: “Heal. Inspire. Revive.” This picks up on Obama’s “Hope” and adds a medical flavor that adds some context unique to the brain surgeon cum politician. It sounds like the patient is dead or at best the strategy is recovery; American greatness is not addressed. From a “truth in advertising” perspective, it’s an honest tagline that couches Ben Carson’s thoughtful, introspective approach in medical language, but does it inspire a following, does it suggest forward momentum?
Carly Fiorina: “New Possibilities. Real Leadership.” This feels very corporate, which not surprisingly, is Ms. Fiorina’s background. Pretty much any leadership conference could employ this tagline. It’s distant and intellectual, although “Real Leadership” has a lot of flexibility, if she can support it.
Ted Cruz: “Reigniting the Promise of America.” It’s the Harvard Business School version of “Let’s Make America Great again.” These two taglines are essentially saying the same thing but notice the difference. The former is in the passive voice and the latter is a verb! “The Promise of America,” sounds like Washington D.C. speak. Make America great,” sounds like real people.
Bernie Sanders: “A Political Revolution is Coming.” Sounds like a hurricane or tornado, pretty scary. What does this revolution portend? How will one be affected? It may be true to the candidate, but it’s not a motivating strategy for anyone not already on his side of the fence.
Marco Rubio: “A New American Century.” This could have been so much more. As the youngest candidate, he is saying that the days of Baby Boomer leadership are over and it’s time for the next generation, with fresh ideas, to take over. It’s a good underlying concept but lacks energy. “Leading the New American Century” or “Shaping the New American Century” would be an improvement. B for Boring.
Rand Paul: “Defeat The Washington Machine. Unleash The American Dream.” This fails the “short” test. It sounds like there are two elections: one to defeat the Washington machine and one for President. The biggest problem is that this tagline is defensive; it says in order to “Unleash the American Dream,” we must “Defeat the Washington machine.” That hasn’t been done yet and it’s doubtful that Rand Paul will be successful if he’s basing his run on defeating the machine.
Mike Huckabee: “From Hope To Higher Ground.” This is clearly aimed at religious voters. Its loftiness is out of touch with the citizenry’s real issues.
The fundamental issues I’ve explored with each tagline indicate the flaws in these brand strategies. The fact that Donald Trump, a non-politician in the formal sense, has identified that people are craving action, should cause every candidate to reassess their brand strategies and thus their taglines. Doubling down on these failing strategies may result in the further reduction of their chances.
Barack Obama’s 2008 “Change We Can Believe In,” was a direct answer to the pain people were feeling about the prior administration. “Make America Great Again” is the most successful tag line of this election cycle, thus far.