Don't Underestimate Bernie's Brand

Sanders displays the classic strengths of new entrants taking on dominant players—and the world of marketing sheds light on his path to success.

Jim Cole / AP

Like many new and different brands, Bernie Sanders has a message that resonates with supporters. But just as big brand managers make the mistake of dismissing new competition, the media has discounted Sanders’s chances of nomination. Indoctrinated by years of “business as usual” both groups assume that history will repeat itself; they assume that the frontrunner has the upper hand; they assume that the parameters of success are fixed and what has worked in the past will work in the future. The real challenge when forecasting future success—for brands or politicians—is to test existing assumptions, not simply to accept them at face value.

Detractors of Sanders’s campaign often write off his early popularity by contending that his supporters are little more than a grumbling and ultimately powerless economic minority. This group, according to critics, may make a lot of noise in the beginning, but it has neither the staying power nor the voter turnout to truly impact an election. But Sanders’s early success is far more indicative of a serious disillusionment with the American Dream and a discredited political mainstream. The cultural and economic context does not merely allow for Sanders’s popularity; rather; it gives grounds to his resonance.

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.

After the first Democratic presidential debate, an NBC News poll found that 56 percent of Democrats said Clinton won the debate, but 54 percent of those under 30 supported Sanders. And while Millennials are often dismissed as a political force on the grounds that only half of them vote, it does not mean they will always remain on the sidelines. Millennials tend not to identify themselves with any party and may be drawn to the correspondingly independent Sanders.

Similarly, an Economist article that dismissed Sanders’s rise also discounted trade-union support on the grounds that only one in 10 Americans belongs to one. This assessment ignores the fact that Sanders has inspired people to organize for themselves; he does not need the backing of organized labor to be successful.

Back in July, more than 3,500 grassroots events were held across the U.S. in support of Sanders, five times as many as were held to support Clinton the month before. Social media also offers a powerful means to coordinate the strength of the individual, particularly the young. As seen in marketing, brands that people find are different in a meaningful way are the ones that attract more followers on social media. After the first Democratic presidential debate, Sanders gained 42,730 new Twitter followers to Hillary Clinton’s 25,475.

The media is flummoxed by the forces that are fueling Sanders’s widespread and growing support simply because it cannot see that it is not business as usual, just as executives at Nokia wrote off the threat of the iPhone by seizing on its apparent weaknesses and ignoring its inherent appeal.

The evidence suggests that, like other successful brands, Sanders has already built up a loyal following. Now, Sanders’s big challenge is to take his message and make it meaningful and salient to as many voters as possible. It’s a difficult task, but it may not be as insurmountable as the media would have us believe.