Why the government shutdown was all about brand loyalty

Finally, after a record-setting 35 days, the government shutdown came to a conclusion last Friday. For 5 weeks, furloughed federal workers felt immense pressure as negotiations remained frozen and disapproval ratings steadily rose on both sides of the aisle.

The shutdown was marked by finger pointing and tit-for-tat, with many believing that the stalemate would keep the government closed into the foreseeable future. But now that it’s over (or at least paused, as the current funding bill only runs through February 15th), the branding and identity politics of our current climate remain.

It’s not unusual to think of a candidate, issue, or political party as a product or service that consumers can buy — especially when it comes to a businessman like President Trump. His base is fiercely loyal; they always have been. But with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history at his feet, some believed that this loyalty could be tested.

The billboard-style of marketing that the president has brought to Capitol Hill over his tenure, including during the shutdown, reveals his past professional history. In fact, POLITICO has reported that those who have worked with him and watched him for decades know nothing to be more familiar or characteristic of his style. Of course, we know how this tribal shutdown fight impacted government services, but how it effects the electorate’s view of the political parties themselves has even wider implications.

In the marketing and PR ether, much of the focus has been on various brands’ initiatives to support federal workers. Yet it seems there’s even more to take away from examining the recent “no holds barred” strategies and behaviors of our leaders, from the White House to Congress.

The “wall” is brand loyalty intertwined with identity

A brand’s identity isn’t only informed by the brand itself, but by customer attitudes and opinions toward the brand. Say what you will about the politics surrounding it, but Trump has done an incredible job of branding “the wall”. And he has shown that his target audience of Republicans and allies couldn’t be more clearly understood — he knows who they are, how they think, what their challenges and frustrations are, and what drives them.

Through consistent messaging, “the wall” has now become associated with a group of people’s values and beliefs. And Trump’s brand of the wall has been communicated as the clear solution. This has made it a deeply ingrained part of their political identity; and just as somebody strong in their identity would work hard to defend themselves, so too will this group defend the wall.

The wall, in part, speaks to human nature and our willingness to align enthusiastically with a cause or idea if we feel as though, through it, we are understood or made a part of something. This is why purpose-driven campaigns are often greeted with enthusiasm, and why many consumers are eager to align with brands that have strong (and authentic) communities. As marketers, we can build better loyalty when we occasionally choose to under-emphasize exactly what we are selling and instead speak to the surrounding issues that are important to our target audience. It is in that way that authentic communities are built, and consumers align themselves with a company on a deeply personal level.

Emotional arguments are impervious to “facts”

Ultimately, the brands we create become the emotions we sell. And the defense of the shutdown is an emotional one due to the wall’s deep entanglement with the values, attitudes and beliefs of the target audience. Further, the opposition rejects “the wall” because its brand is the opposite.

Since the midterms, Congressional Democrats have publicly gone all-in on their key messaging as well — one example being the contentious Oval Office meeting with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer just before the holidays. But, as Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed says, “it is impossible for two groups to compromise on emotions when one option makes one group elated and the other group furious,” which is in large part what made this the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

As it turns out, research supports the old adage that “people buy on emotion and rationalize with logic”. Emotions drive decisions; and they inspire deep brand loyalty. Many of the issues that would sideline other candidates, including the fact that Trump has no political experience, have never invalidated him because he speaks directly to the emotions of his supporters and has continued to do so throughout his presidency.

Brands can learn a tremendous amount from the emotional response that the president has been able to garner from his supporters, from his election through to the shutdown. When brands approach their own initiatives to build loyalty, they should emphasize the ways in which the brand understands and feels its audience’s pain points. They should be passionate, emotional advocates for their audience as well as how their company provides the solution. And as the president has shown us, displaying passion, not just offering lip service, is key to stirring an equal emotion in others, so much so that the emotion itself takes priority over all else.

Semantics matter more than some might think

Several weeks ago, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that all of this has become a “silly semantic argument because people who just want to say ‘wall, wall, wall’ want it to be a four-letter word”. But, as a key influencer in the wall’s marketing effort, it’s perfectly clear that the president wants the wall to be exactly that — a four letter word. Maybe not one that is offensive, but one that is guaranteed to drive an emotional response.

But as any brand that’s struggled to hone existing messaging, or even achieve a successful re-brand, would know, the semantics do matter… a lot. Conway’s comment is an excellent reminder of that. A wide variety of stakeholders, from those in congress to those working on the border, have attempted to make “the wall” a variety of things other than a concrete structure. Prior to his departure, former Chief of Staff John Kelly said that “it was never a wall” in reference to the President’s border security agenda, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that “the wall is a metaphor for border security”. But whether it’s a metaphor, made of concrete, a series of steel slats, or a beaded curtain as Speaker Pelosi joked, the president has been as vocal as ever in undermining these alternative characterizations on Twitter. To him, his original campaign promise of the wall has remained the same, demonstrating his innate ability to stay on-brand.

We all know that consistent messaging is key to any marketing or brand loyalty effort. It’s important for brands to be reliable, as it builds trust. But, as if we needed additional evidence, what we saw from this shutdown is that consistent talking points are also key to ensuring continued loyalty with a target group.

In conclusion

The narrative that surrounds this government shutdown has been carefully crafted from the very beginning. And in his televised shutdown address, the president made it even clearer that he’s going to continue to sell the idea of the wall to the American public, which he’s already branded as, “a great product” upon its completion. In an attempt to strengthen his emotional plea, he also added that “any reforms we make to our immigration system will be designed to improve your lives, [and] make your community safer.”

When it comes to brand loyalty, our current political environment truly is a case study. And for those brands that are eager to make a dramatic, long-lasting impact in driving consumer affinity, Washington might be a good place to look to in understanding what people need to become passionate brand loyalists.