For the Democratic presidential candidate, climate change was an issue of pressing importance. The candidate’s campaign was positioning the White House hopeful as a leader who would proactively address global warming. To fully hammer home the message, the campaign felt it was essential to provide something tangible and memorable, something definitively in line with the eco-minded image it was keen to convey.
Enter branded merchandise.
Kimberly Karp, owner of KK Promotions, an affiliate of Top 40 distributor AIA Corporation (asi/109480), developed a suite of potential solutions. The product options Karp presented to key campaign contacts checked off criteria important to the client, from emphasizing the outdoors and a green ethos to being made in the USA. A vendor of a certain bag, for instance, would donate a portion of each sale to an ocean-protecting nonprofit – a backstory in line with the candidate’s desire to communicate a strong stance on environmental protection.
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That’s the type of depth and thoughtfulness the campaign wanted to go into its merch. The meticulous attention paid by Karp and the candidate’s team is emblematic of how presidential campaigns have come to view branded merchandise. “They see it as absolutely essential,” says Karp, a seasoned political promo pro who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and, so far, two Democratic campaigns during the party’s 2020 primary cycle.
Karp continued: “The merchandise really helps establish who they are – their brand and their core values, the issues that matter to them. It’s telling that a campaign now has a director of merchandise. That’s not something you used to see. It shows how important branded merchandise has become.”
Promotional products have a long history in American politics, stemming all the way back to George Washington. But never have they played such a central role for presidential candidates, who are using swag to help build their personal brands, raise vital funds, and gather data about supporters that can be used to fuel advertising and marketing efforts. As a result, presidential merchandise has been elevated from afterthoughts for campaigns to strategic tools that have a say in who becomes the nation’s next chief executive.
“Merchandise really helps establish who candidates are – their brand and their core values.” Kimberly Karp, KK Promotions
A Merch Movement
These days, the most in-demand product launches aren’t just found in a pop-up or exclusive fashion store. Every presidential candidate boasts an array of on-brand “collateral” (the political insider term for promotional products) fulfilled by amply provisioned web stores. So how has the stodgy world of politics become so merch obsessed?
Technology is certainly an important factor; e-commerce capabilities have evolved to a point where any end-client (corporations, Little Leagues and, yes, even presidential candidates) can sell their logoed swag to anyone through an online store purchasing process that’s relatively stress-free. “The ability for folks to easily purchase merch online has exploded, and candidates for office are capitalizing on that,” says Joe Fuld, president of The Campaign Workshop, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm.
But tech is only the tip of the iceberg. Another fundamental factor: President Barack Obama and President Trump both executed campaign-catalyzing marketing masterstrokes through their savvy use of branded merchandise.
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Obama raised nearly $77 million from merch sales during his two campaigns. He relied on the medium to help build a robust brand image that appealed to his base and attracted voters who were on the fence. Furthermore, the Obama for America campaign devised a trackable system that registered every person who purchased an Obama item, which allowed the campaign to persistently follow up with supporters, encouraging them to volunteer and donate. Many branding and political experts view Obama’s approach to campaign swag as quite revolutionary. “He really helped fuel his campaign with it,” says Karp.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s incredibly successful use of promotional products during the 2016 election – and in particular the iconic red “Make America Great Again” hats – have sent campaigns’ desire for merch into overdrive.
“MAGA hats are perhaps the most successful and talked-about piece of promotional campaign collateral ever,” says political consultant Baron Christopher Hanson, owner of RedBaron USA, a firm with operations in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. “What makes the hats such a well-leveraged branded merchandise decision is that Donald Trump’s political message sits right atop every supporter’s head, at each wearer’s very tallest point.”
Since the red hats reached ubiquitous levels among supporters during the 2016 election battle, Trump’s campaign has gone from strength to strength when it comes to swag, routinely releasing items that generate sales by appealing to the president’s staunch base.
“The electorate is responding to politicians’ brands like consumers. They want to wear the merchandise of the candidate whose brand resonates with them.” Dr. Phani Tej Adidam
The phenomenon, coupled with Obama’s impressive precedent, has opened subsequent candidates’ eyes to the potential of merch, making them eager to replicate those successes. Some analysts say that promo products have become so central that a candidate would risk looking weak and out-of-date if he or she were to lack a decent stock of quality, on-brand logoed gear in an easily navigable web store. Of course, candidates would also be missing a significant fundraising opportunity.
“The desire for political swag has increased exponentially, especially since Trump became involved,” says Randy LeFaivre, CEO/president of distributorship MetroLogo (asi/268938). Based in Washington, D.C., LeFaivre has worked on a bevy of politics-related merch initiatives for Republican and Democrat clients, including former 2020 presidential candidate John Delaney and nationally known pundits like Tucker Carlson. “Nowadays,” LeFaivre says, “there’s definitely a deeper understanding that the right merchandise can provide a ton of value.”
The Importance of a Strong Brand
Obama and Trump’s achievements with merch – and current candidates’ desire to use it for similar campaign-boosting ends – is grounded in at least one other factor. It happens to be sociological.
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People wear and keep logoed items because it shows their affinity for the company, school, team, etc., that’s being advertised. They identify with the logos and values associated with it. They want to be part of the brand. It’s no surprise that the willingness and want to wear a brand has translated into the political arena, compelling candidates to ramp up their merch marketing efforts.
“In the political world, the electorate is responding to politicians’ brands like consumers,” says Dr. Phani Tej Adidam, a branding expert and marketing/entrepreneurship professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “They want to wear the merchandise of the candidate whose brand resonates with them. When they do that, they get a sense of belonging, as well as security and even, to a degree, happiness.”
That becomes reinforcing, says Adidam, who’s conducted research and spoke to officials on multiple 2020 campaigns. The more people feel part of the community around the brand, the more likely they are to support the brand. And if the brand happens to be a candidate in a hotly contested presidential race, the grassroots support can be especially crucial. Says Adidam: “The smart campaigns are really trying to galvanize their base, and branded merchandise is helping with that.”
The attention candidates are placing on branding appears to be wise. Consider: Back in 2016, most political polls had Hillary Clinton winning the election. However, a different gauge that assessed the candidates as brands accurately indicated Trump’s upset victory.
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Developed about 30 years ago by the Young & Rubicam advertising company (which is now Y&R and BAV Group, both of which are part of global advertising corporation WPP), the framework evaluated the candidates on their brand stature and brand strength. Stature is based on how well-known and how well-liked a particular brand is, while strength is an outgrowth of a brand’s differentiation and relevance. Stature is a brand’s past performance, strength its future growth potential. Of the two, brand strength must come first and is the most important, though challenging to achieve.
While Trump and Clinton were roughly equal in terms of brand stature, the New York City real estate developer-turned-president was miles ahead of the former secretary of state when it came to brand strength. Clinton, the analysis showed, was essentially perceived as similar to other politicians; Trump was differentiated and on-point in terms of messaging to the voters he needed to capture. That’s a top reason why he was able to prevail in toss-up states that Obama had won in 2008 and 2012 (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin), and thus swing the Electoral College in his favor, according to the brand-based analysis. “Trump won because his base was excited and came out to vote for him,” says Adidam.
Presidential Promo Spend
An analysis of campaign finance reports by Counselor magazine shows that, through February, Pete Buttigieg led the candidates in spending on promotional products, though "Mayor Pete" won't be spending any more now that he is out of the race. Four years ago at this time, both President Trump and Bernie Sanders had spent triple and (in Sanders’ case) nearly five times what they spent during this cycle, though both have time to make up the difference. Meanwhile, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar have lagged behind the rest of the field in their promo output. Klobuchar will remain there, as she has called it quits on her campaign.
As of this writing, the same analysis had Trump ahead of his Democratic rivals in terms of brand strength and brand stature. In strength, his nearest challengers were Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Interestingly, they remain the two challengers for the party's nomination now that the field has narrowed. In stature, Biden was ahead of Sanders, though both were looking up at Trump.
Raising Funds & Data Mining
Sure, brand building is huge. But merch also serves an even more bottom-line purpose: It encourages people to donate to campaigns, and that’s essential given the astronomical spending that’s required to compete in a presidential election.
Rather than just ask for a donation, merch becomes a means of providing tangible value in return for a contribution. “People are willing to spend $25 for a hat, and much of the money goes to support the campaign,” says Adidam. At those manageable sums, he adds, “Merchandise is a strategic way of drumming up support from a lot of small donors.”
The significance of those small donors has ascended the ladder of importance in the 2020 election, especially for Democrats. Candidates have been driven to portray themselves as independents who won’t let deep-pocketed lobbies dictate their agenda. As such, some presidential campaigns have refused to take campaign contributions from PACs. The money needs to be made up somewhere, and merch sales can help plug the hole.
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Those small donors are also offering up something very valuable: data. Through his interviews with and research on campaigns, Adidam learned that at least several are using promo products to gather pivotal information about supporters. “Campaigns are mining data from their merch transactions,” he says. “They’re then monetizing that data.”
It works like this: A supporter goes to a candidate’s web store and buys, say, a hat. To get the item, she has to input her name, address, credit card information, email address and perhaps other information. Campaigns are collecting the personal data from each purchase and analyzing it. Doing so allows them to identify locales where their support may be concentrated, says Adidam. Once such areas are known, the campaigns can use micro-target marketing and advertising initiatives there. “Micro-targeting energizes your base,” says Adidam. “And if your base comes out in force, you will win.”
“The desire for political swag has increased exponentially, especially since Trump became involved.” Randy LeFaivre, MetroLogo
To keep the data stream (and donations) flowing, campaigns must continually stimulate purchases. Delivering evocative messaging on popular products is clearly one way to do that. Hats, followed by T-shirts, yard signs and mugs, have been top sellers during the primary cycle, according to Adidam. Still, sales stand to drop off if the collections are static. “Like any fashion brand, you need to regularly add new items and introduce fresh ideas with your messaging so that the merchandise doesn’t become stale,” says Adidam. “You want people to keep coming back to see what’s new.”
The tactic isn’t lost on the Biden campaign. “Our team is gearing up to launch a new line of swag as the spring and summer seasons approach,” Jamal Brown, Biden’s national press secretary, told Counselor.
In the end, promotional products alone will not have decided who becomes the United States’ 46th president. But they will have played a fascinating – and significant – part in the process.