Boris Johnson Donald Trump

10 May Personality beats Party – what brand builders can learn from Boris and Trump

It’s election season. Scotland & Wales have chosen their assemblies. London its mayor. Even the long-running US primaries look to be heading for a conclusion. Meanwhile the British referendum on EU membership is around the corner. Can you simply have too much democracy? Against the backdrop of all these rich opportunities for self-expression, there’s another story that’s interesting. The demise of the political party and the rise of personality politics.

In the past, the political party played a key role in delivering the vote. Grassroots campaigners mobilised the core vote and engaged the swing voters in debate. Activists arranged transport to the polls for those in need. For the committed core voters, the party symbol on the ballot paper was a good enough reason to vote without the need for further reflection, secure in their choice.

Yet in 2015, just 1.5% [1] of the UK electorate was a member of a political party. In the US, more people self-identify as independents (39%) than as either Democratic or Republican [2].

Some people say that this fall in party affiliation is down to a failure to engage digitally with the electorate. It is more likely to be a regression to an apathetic mean. Left to our own (wi-fi enabled) devices most of us simply can’t be bothered with it all.

Brand owners have been coming to terms with the unpleasant realisation that the majority of their potential buying public are equally disengaged for several years now. The work of Byron Sharp [3] and others has demonstrated that we are “cognitive misers” who use our attention and effortful engagement sparingly. This has led to a focus by some brand builders away from so-called loyal committed buyers and towards the larger group of occasional, light buyers – the floating voters if you will.

If we think about the recipe for brand growth in this context– securing brand distinction, salience and relevance – then we can look at these ingredients in action in the world of politics and draw some parallel lessons.

1. Distinct personality rules

Clinton. Bush. Obama. Trump. Boris. Each of these conjures up a simple set of powerful associations that have transcended the names of the older, less personal, more fuzzy party brands (Democrat, Republican, Conservative). It’s easier for our brains to judge the person than worry about intricate, confusing party policy detail.

2. Momentum matters

Love him or hate him (at least you have a reaction), this is something that Trump can teach us. Making the supposed “silent majority” visible to others.

It leads to one of the most powerful choice short-cuts of all – “I’ll have what she’s having” – the more we see people like us doing something, the more likely we are to join too. We probably needed rather more bumper stickers and rather less invisible personalised emails in the recent London Mayoral campaign.

3. Salience is the key

And this is why the Republican party are so worried. Will Trump with his polarising track record be able to find a centrist pitch to all those Independents that can win an election? Here’s where relevance matters. He’s certainly prominent, but can this multi-billionaire tycoon truly seem relevant to enough of an anxious electorate who feel that the political elite are just not in touch?

Anyone who thinks this is an impossible long shot just needs to look across the pond. An old Etonian whose tax return puts him squarely at the top of the 1% has charismatically united one of the most diverse cities in the country for 8 years – by transcending his core Tory roots and creating mass appeal.

As for brands so for politicians. Focus on the core voters is not enough for mainstream success. Prominence and relevance with the floating voters really matters.

The best course of action is clear. Work on distinctiveness, relevance and presence (a bundle we call ‘Brainshare’ at Triniti), create and harness momentum in order to gain the popular vote. Don’t worry too much about the deep detail and the rational arguments. When it comes to purchasing or voting, most of us don’t deliberate too deeply. Our mental frames of reference are more X-factor than Mastermind.

Whether choosing our governments on this basis leads to the best outcomes is of course another matter. As Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”

[1] Commons Briefing papers SN05125 Author: Richard Keen

[2] Pew research center April 7 2015

[3] How brands grow: Byron Sharp

To learn more about Brainshare, get in touch with us at