Sanders’s message of economic and social fairness is resonating with Americans in exactly the same way that many successful brands do—by addressing societal tensions. Sanders, for example, tapped into a public that felt trapped after the Great Recession. Similarly, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty succeeded by addressing the idealized portrayal of female beauty in popular culture that many women found unobtainable and demeaning. IBM has found success with its promise of making the world a Smarter Planet through technology, and Chipotle is appealing to those who may not agree with the practices of big agriculture.
Audi, Under Armour, and Apple have gained traction by taking their differences and making them meaningful and salient to a wider audience. People find it difficult to agree that a brand is relevant and appealing to them if they are unfamiliar with it, but they will readily admit that it is different. The trick is then to demonstrate how that difference is relevant to more people. This logic equally applies to the presidential race.
On a recent NPR segment, David Brooks of The New York Times questioned why Sanders did not challenge Hillary Clinton during the Democratic debate if he truly wanted to be president, suggesting that he had raised the white flag of surrender by not using Clinton’s email controversy against her. His statement reflects a mindset indoctrinated by decades of increasingly aggressive political debate. But Americans are looking for a president who has a clear sense of purpose—an ideology, if you will—rather than one who merely indulges in character assassination to win power. Sanders’s message and tone are so different that they simply do not compute for pundits—but they resonate with voters.
Sanders is also broadcasting his message. On Tuesday, his campaign began airing television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. National polls in large part reflect the disparity in name recognition between him and Clinton. Outside the lead primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa, where he is giving Clinton a run for her money, Sanders is far less well-known. But simply improving name recognition may help close the gap with Clinton, so long as the term “socialist” doesn’t discourage people. Sanders has to reassure people that he champions economic fairness, not economic equality, as he tried to do in the first Democratic debate, but given widespread societal discontent he may be pushing against an open door.
“Straight line” predictions abound in politics just as they do in marketing. Once a trend is established, people make predictions using the existing rate of change and rarely does anyone anticipate a dramatic change. Yet exponential trends are relatively common in the marketing world—just think about the rise of Facebook, Uber, or Chobani. In each case, the status quo changed rapidly when the conditions were right. Leading indicators of change are that the brand is seen to be setting the trends for its category and growing in popularity—and where early adopters lead, the majority will likely follow.