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How behavioural economics explains the rise of Trump

If you’re anything like me, the slow unveiling of more and more Trump supporters as state after state fell in the red during the tallying of the US election was at first bewildering and then a little scary, and ultimately confusing.

How was this man – with absolutely zero political experience (in the traditional sense of what it once meant), preaching a message that would have had more relevance in the 1950’s – able to worm his way into the White House and the most powerful job in the world?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to completely answer that question, but examining Trump’s success through a behavioural economics (BE) lens enables us to bring some degree of understanding and comprehension to the seemingly impossible. 

The first BE heuristic that Trump was (unwittingly) able to tap into was that of the ‘effect bias’. This is when emotional elements outweigh the rational in the decision making process. Trump had people voting with their gut rather than their head. Trump’s message was incredibly powerful and resonated so strongly that it was able to overcome a decision that typically involves some small degree of reason and logic. But that’s the crux of it – our emotions drive all of our decisions, and particularly those that are important to us.

It explains the exasperation of CMOs when they know they have a superior product yet people are not seeing it their way. When Virgin started up with a just a few planes and only two routes (both to the US East Coast) it drove British Airways to peaks of fury that people were talking about Virgin so positively when British Airways was clearly the bigger and better carrier. But British Airways’ rational arguments – “with so  few planes what would happen when they had an engineering problem?” – and their tone of voice when they referred to Virgin simply heightened the emotional warmth toward their competitor. The British love of the underdog came to the fore. Most brands have learnt the lesson about criticising their competitors but don’t always invest sufficiently or consistently (and you have to admire Trump for getting this right) to capitalise on the affect bias by triggering a strong emotional reaction.

Next was the ‘power of the messenger’. I’m sure everyone can agree that for as long as they have been voting in elections (and likely as long as there have been elections) we have been listening to more or less the same messages, from more or less the same kind of people.

Trump was not cast in the same shadow as the typical politician. He was not coming from a position of the career politician (untrustworthy and nepotistic), the unions (self- interested and out of touch) or even Hillary (the tainted dynasty). Trump was different, fresh and exactly what many Americans were craving – a self-made (questionable) billionaire operating in a society that reveres the self-made man and those who have reached success through their own endeavours. To many, Trump was the embodiment of the American dream. 

I recently read an article published in the Harvard Business Review by Joan C. Williams in which she explores Trump’s supporter stronghold – the working class. In it she refers to the fact that the white working class resent professionals but admire the rich. Professionals boss the working class around around while the rich, due to a lack of contact, are perceived to be “like me, just with a bit more money.” Hillary is the professional, Trump is the rich. The viral photo of Trump eating KFC with cutlery in his private jet is a perfect example of this. That makes him a credible messenger, no matter the message.

Have we moved away from the power of authoritative messengers – men in white coats giving us the science behind toothpaste, police lecturing us about drink driving – and into an era of “just like me”? The challenge for brands is identifying what the equivalent of ‘with a bit more money’ is for their market to give people something to aspire to.

Another behaviour flaw that Trump was able to successfully engage was the ‘recency effect’. Trump’s media strategy was to basically say the same few things and say them for longer than his opposition. Even now, several months later, it’s not especially challenging to recall some of Trump’s key messages (think the wall, China, ISIS, bringing jobs back to the US, crooked Hillary) while doing the same for Hillary is much more challenging.

Twitter was unquestionably one of the strongest strings in Trump’s media bow. In one interview he told CBS that he finds Twitter “tremendous…it’s a modern form of communication. There should be nothing you should be ashamed of. It’s where it’s at.”

I recently heard that some of the US’ most unexpected successful presidential candidates were all able to harness new media in a way their competitors couldn’t. Take, for example, FDR’s use of radio to informally explain his policies; JFK and the visionary way in which he recognised the power of television and used it to tap into new culture and appeal to the masses; and Obama and his crowdfunding-esque use of the internet (small donations from lots of donors are just as valuable as big donations from a few donors). Now Trump has used Twitter to take social media into an entirely new realm of unprecedented engagement direct from the Oval Office.

Harnessing new media is keeping many in the marketing industry awake at night. And Facebook’s belief in VR as the next new platform, with their purchase of Oculus (virtual reality manufacturer), is feeding the insomnia. 

While there are many more behavioural flaws, heuristics and biases that Trump engaged to his advantage, let’s finish on what was the biggest and largest contributor – ‘loss aversion’. Loss aversion is the theory that we feel our losses, from a psychological perspective, twice as much as our gains. Trump was able to exploit loss aversion by positioning himself as the only source of hope for so many disenfranchised Americans. He positioned himself as their saviour and only chance of returning to a way of life they saw their parents live, and there was no way they were going let the promise of that future slip through their fingers – no matter what Hillary was selling.

The snowball reveal of Trump supporters announcing themselves was a bit like watching the smokers light up after a meal. At first no one’s doing it, then one plucks up the courage and lights up and that’s all it really takes – the angst is quickly forgotten amongst the comfort of other smokers and before you know it half the room is smoking, or in this case.

This is something Trump supporters have talked about throughout and since the election. The extreme relief in hearing other supporters announce themselves and the realisation that they weren’t crazy and in fact there are a hell of a lot of others who feel just the same way.

I still find the whole Trump ‘leader of the free world’ thing pretty tough to get my head around, but examining the election through the lens of behavioural economics certainly helps to bring some sense to it. And rightly or wrongly, whether we care to admit it or not, there is a lot brands and marketers can learn from his success.

Jeremy McDonnell is a consultant at TRA.  
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