It's the authenticity, stupid

In demand in the early stages of this election cycle as much as it's ever been in the marketing world, authenticity is driving early surges by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Images via Gage Skidmore / Flickr; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license
Images via Gage Skidmore / Flickr; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

Why do Republican primary voters like Donald Trump? When Bloomberg asked that question in a late July focus group in New Hampshire, "He tells it like it is" – or some version thereof – was the most common answer. 

Polls showing Trump in the lead in early voting states and nationally could mean GOP voters are again flirting with an out-of-the-mainstream choice (Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann) before things get serious this fall and early next year. Or it could mean the political process is catching up with what savvy marketers already know: smart brands – er, candidates in this case – are recognizing how much consumers are craving authenticity.

Trump’s out-in-front candidacy has been confounding to political professionals and observers alike, most of whom wrote him off as a campaign sideshow that would have little to no impact on the race. (Full disclosure: I predicted Trump’s campaign would meet a swift end after he mocked John McCain’s record in Vietnam. Clearly, I’m no Nostradamus).

It wasn’t the only time someone incorrectly predicted a Trump free fall. Trump offends immigrants and TV executives alike in his announcement speech? Bump in the polls. Trump outrages Republican grandees by belittling John McCain’s POW experience? Poll bump. Trump makes chauvinistic comments about Fox News host Megyn Kelly? He’s still at the top of national GOP polls.

What’s vexing to so many about Trump’s campaign is his straightforwardness (or offensiveness) is a strength, not a liability to many Republican primary voters, preferable to what they see as rehearsed and rehashed messages from conventional candidates.

The same phenomenon is also taking place to a lesser degree in the Democratic Party, where Bernie Sanders is making things uncomfortable for presumed nominee Hillary Clinton. Yes, Sanders is to the left of Clinton, his views are concurrent with those of many primary voters, and Vermont is next to New Hampshire. (Not to mention that whole "emailgate," thing or that Clinton has reneged on promises to do more interviews). Yet Sanders’ early success shows the Democratic electorate also sees his authenticity as a strength.

Many marketers are probably looking at how the primary process is shaking out and thinking, "Well, duh. Authenticity plays well in the store aisle. Why not in the voting booth?"

The proof is in the data. Cohn & Wolfe found in the latest iteration of its Authentic Brands study that the number one thing consumers want from big brands is "communicating honestly about products and services." Sixty-three percent of respondents to that survey said they would purchase from a company they consider "authentic," and just fewer than half (47%) said they’d be happy to work for them.

Will it last? For brands, the answer is most certainly "yes." For Trump, it depends on whether his lead can sustain attacks from other candidates focused on his past, non-conservative stances on the issues.

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.

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