The lesson from losing: Know your customer

The real failure of the Clinton campaign was that it didn't understand--and ignored--the pain and disenfranchisement of ordinary Americans, writes the founder of Barker.

"The only real mistake is one from which we learn nothing."—Henry Ford

As the ashes of the 2016 presidential election begin to cool, as the shock starts to fade, and as millions of ordinary Americans return to the ordinary business of our ordinary lives, what can be salvaged from the rubble of so many dreams? What can we scavengers of data and analytics and trend forecasting and consumer insights glean and preserve for the years ahead? Surely there is learning here, as in any failure ... and arguably, the more spectacular the failure, the spectacular the learning should be, right?

But sadly, no. Instead of some shiny new paradigm, there is nothing but a dull, old saw: "know your customer."

Now, not everyone will agree. They will find some insidious, facile perniciousness to rave about, some blame to cast on the victors, as if that could ever console anyone. But they will be wrong. Many pundits will say this election turned on misogyny or xenophobia, but they too will be wrong and have been every step of the way. While those deeply concerning issues of prejudice were certainly in ample evidence, the real failure of the Clinton campaign—and the success of Trump's—hinged on an authentic understanding of the pain and disenfranchisement of ordinary Americans. Trump got it. Hillary ignored it.

"Deplorables," she called them. In a country increasingly aware of bullying and the real damage inflicted by labels, Clinton dismissed 56 million voters as nothing but racists and ignorant white trash. And in that moment, she lost. Because every fear that ordinary Americans had about Washington insiders and secret Wall Street deals and missing emails and an out-of-touch Democratic cabal crystallized into one devastating, arrogant, highfalutin word. And while any group so large will have vocal and visible radicals, the truth of these voters was invisible to the Clintons and their handlers.

Look, it's not deplorable to be scared when the price of groceries goes up and your shift hours go down or the local plant closes. It's not deplorable to fear that the town you grew up in is nothing more than a ruin with a Dollar Tree taking over the old Town Hall. It’s not deplorable to feel as if the Obama administration was more concerned with Syrian refugees than our own citizens in the heartland or the Rust Belt. And it's not deplorable to be concerned about national security or soaring health care costs or federal laws that challenge your personal or religious beliefs. These are legitimate concerns of millions of good, solid people, and they needed to be addressed with respect—not derision, dismissal and ridicule.

When you lose touch with the consumer, you lose. Period.

The reality of the voting, as opposed to the egregious predictions about it, was an extraordinary rebuke of the arrogant intelligencia: the smug pollsters, the out-of-touch New York Times, the coastal elites and the Washington insiders (and us; let’s not forget about our own culpability as marketers and thought leaders). It followed eight years of a markedly detached and inaccessible intellectual president who expected ordinary Americans to understand and nod along with oxymoronic constructs such as, "You didn't build that" to tax entrepreneurs or why the Affordable Care Act has made health care unaffordable.

Trump, on the other hand, not only talked about change—he broke every rule. His campaign, aside from its regular, unsavory attacks and general ugliness, was the epitome of the American rebel. People believed that he will change the status quo because he never cared about it in the first place. Unlike the overly polished and reserved image of Hillary Clinton, who, to many, seemed to poll opinions before she would actually have them, Trump talked from his gut, off the top of his mind and off-script. Nevermind that it didn't always make sense or might be incendiary or inaccurate; that was less important to them than a leader who speaks his mind.

And while the Democrats will pour many months and millions upon millions into examining why they lost, the truth is that Trump simply won. Like any improbable victory in marketing—and to be clear, an election is about marketing, not governing—he understood the consumer, he crafted a differentiated product, he shared a point of view of importance to his constituents and he executed his plan with sufficient intrusiveness and talkability to win.

Hail to the Chief Marketer.

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