Bumper stickers are so 2012. Today’s campaign merchandise has moved way past the rear end of a car, or posters on a dorm room wall. Howard Belk, co-CEO and chief creative officer of global branding firm siegel+gale, says if you look carefully at the merchandise offered up by a campaign, you can tell how confident a candidate is feeling. Look no farther than Hillary Clinton.
“She’s got this great little onesie there,” he says. “There’s kind of a wit and cleverness not only to the swag and the graphics on it, but even how they’ve named it.” Clinton’s merchandise, the “Future Voter” onesie, the “Think Tank” tank top or a “Hats Off to Hillary” baseball cap, reflects a sense of confidence on the part of her campaign, Belk says.
“Hillary has essentially been coronated as the Democratic candidate – unless something really surprising happens,” he says. But on the Republican side, “it’s a dog fight,” he says.
Because the Republican field is so crowded, many candidates are afraid to be funny, Belk notes. After all, a poorly received joke could alienate potential voters. As a result, every coffee mug and lapel pin that could bare a candidate’s name is being cautiously scrutinized, which can result in merchandise that can leave a little something to be desired. But “I really like the stuff I’m seeing from Rand Paul,” Belk adds.
“It’s unlikely that any of these folks will end up in retail or merchandising,” says Scott Galloway, a clinical professor of marketing at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, of the candidates offerings, regardless of party affiliation. “These aren’t what I’d call an inspiring product mix.”
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For a campaign, lackluster products, or even merchandise that misses the mark, can mean more than the possibility of parody skits on late-night TV. Though millions are spent on ads, says Galloway, it’s important that campaigns not overlook the power of the humble $30 T-shirt, which has the potential to prove that a consumer is authentically passionate about a candidate.
“Nothing says that more than wearing the name of someone on your person,” he says.
Candidates are brands too, notes Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton and author of “Contagious, Why Things Catch On.” “Consumer psychology drives the decisions we make, whether it’s from the milk we buy at the store to the person we elect for president,” he says.
We’re more likely to support a candidate, Berger says, if our friends and family do. When it comes to what products candidates sell, all the campaigns could do better, he says. So what does he think all that merchandise says about the candidates? The answer sounds a bit like what a cynical voter might say about politics in general.
“That’s a little tough for me, because I’m not sure there’s much variation.”