As “the most important election of our lifetime” nears even closer, pundits continue to dissect the two campaigns. Certainly, there's a clear choice this year for the Presidential race, as evidenced by the polarity of the electorate. Everyone has taken sides, and it's hard to imagine what the “undecideds” are thinking at this point.
By just about every measure, the two candidates at the top of the ticket (and their Veep choices) couldn't be more different – by background, experience, philosophy, and style.
Trump has been barnstorming those “battleground states,” hosting multiple rallies per day – in the open with thousands of his most passionate zealots in attendance, cheering on his every word and gesture. Biden, on the other hand, is doing fewer campaign events than his adversary, all of which require masks and social distancing. His events are sparsely attended but designed to garner media coverage for his “stump speeches.”
The two leaders don't agree on much, whether it's COVID, the Supreme Court, health care, foreign trade, or even which cable news network to watch. They are that different from one another ideologically and stylistically.
But one thing they seem to align on is the value of merch to their campaigns. Interestingly, both have “old school” tendencies, because…they're old. And you can see how that plays out in their political styles. Both lean hard on slogans and branded clothing and other logoware that are on sale from a variety of sources.
For Trump, it's about owning the MAGA brand – the catchphrase that helped get him elected in 2016, and he has used it as an ongoing theme throughout these past four years. You may not know the name of his Secretary of Defense, but you're well aware of “Make America Great Again.”
And savvy marketer that he is, Trump “owns” the red color that matches the hats and other merch. (I'm not sure why the lawn signs aren't red, but that's another question for another day.)
Biden's key positioning statement – “Build Back Better” – isn't as well-known or as memorable. While the campaign and its surrogates use the one-liner with some regularity, it's more about branding “Biden/Harris.”
But there's something else going on with Biden's merchandizing activities. They're running it like a radio station – or better yet, a morning show – responding to the mood of the moment, the news stories of the day, and other “currents” designed to seize the day.
Regular readers of this blog know how passionate I am about station merch, especially for brands that matter. In radio's pre-Internet days, T-shirts, hats, and other logo stamped product played an important role in station marketing. Most stations worked hard at developing the next cool tchotchke or collectible that would capture fan interest – and in many cases, their dollars.
Sadly, merch programs were the babies that got thrown out with the bath water when the industry began to engage in draconian cost-cutting. And while some expenditures, like research and marketing have been restored, few stations make a serious commitment to merch these days.
And in many ways, it's counter-intuitive. Whether it was for profit, a charitable cause, or a little of both, great stations that used merch tactically often enjoyed financial rewards, as well as free promotion from their fans. But does that user-generated marketing from station loyalists really matter?
I invite you to drive around your neighborhood today, and take note of all those lawn campaign signs, bumperstickers, and wearables you see. In fact, take the time to do an informal count of how many “impressions” you encounter for Biden or Trump (or perhaps a local or state race of interest). In fact, keep a tally of how many times you see signage for each candidate.
And then think about whether those totals reflect the way you feel your community or area will turn out and vote for either Presidential contender or candidates in other contests. Chances are, the visibility leader will, in fact, win the battle for your zip code. And as marketers know, the more you see merch and signs for any candidate (or product), the more popular you likely perceive her to be.
While both the President and his challenger, the former Vice President, are heavily involved in merchandizing activities, that's where the similarity ends. The Trump campaign tends to take a straightforward approach to wearables and signs. They're in it for exposure, and their hardcore acolytes never disappoint.
Interestingly, there are indicators that many pop-up MAGA stores have surfaced, many of them not sanctioned by the campaign. New Englander Keith Lambert appears to be one of Trumpworld's most prolific entrepreneurs, opening up multiple stores throughout the region, bolstered by heavy news media coverage:
You can find all things @realDonaldTrump at #NewEnglandforTrump pop-up stores that have opened in 5 Massachusetts towns, including #Easton. Trump supporter Keith Lambert opened them. He may open several more. pic.twitter.com/iYGp22D3He
— Kim Tunnicliffe (@KimWBZ) February 4, 2020
Lambert's philosophy is simple: “I've got good instincts, and act on them right away.” That sounds like every great radio station marketing director I've had the pleasure to work with.
Lambert also comes up with his own slogans, and cranks out merch that sports sayings like “Keep On Trumpin.'” When the Newport (RI) Daily News asked him how he'll respond if the President loses his bid for re-election, Lambert simply responded, “I'll liquidate.”
It is not clear whether profits from Lambert's sales are pumped back into the campaign – but it sure doesn't look that way. The Trump organization has largely been a branding machine over the years, pasting its familiar logo on neckties, steaks, hotels and casinos, and even that university. And given the litigious reputation of the boss, you'd think impromptu stores like Lambert's might draw legal firepower from the Trump organization.
But apparently not. And maybe the bottom line is that he's selling and marketing a lot of Trump stuff.
Meantime, at Biden headquarters, it's a different rhythm. As challengers to the incumbent – just like in radio – the former Vice President's team combines straight-ahead branded merch with humorous items designed to be in the moment. Like those branded fly swatters that quickly materialized during the Vice Presidential debate when a fly took a two-minute siesta on Mike Pence's head:
Biden’s team is legit selling a fly swatter now. Whoever is in charge of tweets and merch needs a raise. They are on top of their shit 🐝 https://t.co/WqzFT7ZCZe
— Diep Tran 🧙🏼♀️ (@diepthought) October 8, 2020
A recent story in Mashable, “An inside look at how Biden's campaign is winning the viral merch game,” by Nicole Gallucci breaks it all down.
The campaign's “in the moment” strategy is articulated by Zach McNamara, Biden's merch director:
“When something like the tax story comes up, or we have unifying moments during debates, like we saw last night […] there is a Slack channel where we come together and start to throw out ideas. And you know, like nine out of 10 them will not work. But a lot of times one of them will.”
And of course it doesn't take long to design a T-shirt like the one pictured at right. It sounds like a page straight out of Paige Nienaber's playbook – the same one every great radio station promotions director used – to capture the zeitgeist of any moment.
Thanks to social media, the really good stuff sells fast – without cluttering up the airwaves or depleting an advertising budget. And as you can see from some of the examples in this post, fans get inspired by humorous or clever merch as well.
Given the times in which we live, there's “Breaking News” every 15 minutes or so – a perfect storm of viral events that were made for the immediacy and currency of branded merch.
And because shirts, hats – and even fly swatters – can be designed and ordered on the fly via online stores – even McNamara's fail rate isn't a problem. If something doesn't sell, you move on to the next idea.
It's true that political candidates and sports teams are often electric brands that fire up crowds, inspiring fans to display the team colors and slogans.
Radio stations may not hold that same passionate position in the population's mind. But there are many outstanding stations, megawatt personalities, and great station events and causes that are simple and easy to merchandize.
Another lesson from this campaign is that while the issues – especially around the pandemic – may be dead serious, the country needs a relief valve, an escape from the day-to-day stress of current events. In many cases, that's precisely the mission of most music radio stations and personality shows.
McNamara refers to this activity as “lighthearted moments.” We could certainly use a few more of them.
And have you seen the markup on T-shirts and hats?
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