MANCHESTER, N.H. — The red brims of Trump supporters’ Make American Great Again hats moved in unison at the president’s rally here this month, shifting and tilting like a flock of birds in a sharp wind.
President Trump’s declaration that Republicans believe in the “dignity of work, and the sanctity of life” sent a crimson ripple through the crowd. The hats swiveled toward the news cameras in the back as he reproached the media for their “fake news.” A standing ovation produced a rising wave of red when the president blamed mass shootings on a shortage of mental institutions: “It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger, it’s the person holding the gun.”
Trump may have forsworn retail politics in the baby-kissing, chit-chatting sense of the term. But when it comes to campaign swag — hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers — Trump is a retail master. And whether items such as Joe Biden’s “Cup O’Joe” mug ($25), Elizabeth Warren’s “Persist” tote ($35), or Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” tee ($27) will be able to match his MAGA brand will be an estimable challenge for the Democratic field.
There is little question that Trump, the businessman-cum-president who made a name for himself mostly by selling his name, understands the power of merchandising. His iconic red MAGA hat is testament to that.
On the street, it’s a billboard, broadcasting its message to the masses. At a Trump rally, it’s a sartorial bonding experience. And at $25 and up, the hats are a fund-raising engine for his reelection: In April, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale announced the campaign had sold nearly 1 million hats, accounting for about $45 million in its coffers. Then it ran a sweepstakes to hand out the millionth hat sold.
Shaping a candidate into a viable brand is becoming more important to campaigns than crafting a detail-oriented platform, and that could mean trouble for Democrats this cycle, said Bruce Newman, a marketing professor at DePaul University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Political Marketing.
“The playing field is being defined by the president, and it’s not going to be won or lost on the strength of the policy, but on the strength of your brand,” he said.
As a brand-builder, the MAGA hat is just about perfect. It captures Trump’s tone and swagger and amplifies his nationalistic message. And it helps that, for marketing purposes, red is angry, it is loud, and it is Republican.
Democrats, of course, won’t have a nominee for another year. For the moment, each candidate is all about gaining the upper hand in a crowded field, and a sharp swag strategy will be part of that. But strategists warn there is no time to lose in the brand battle; Democrats have to be smart and deliberate, starting now, to match the MAGA machine that is still building steam.
“The campaign who phones in their branding or creative are making a really big mistake,” said Democratic digital strategist Tara McGowan. “You’re leaving money and potentially votes on the table.”
In the congested primary race, merch, as campaigns call it, can not only define a candidate early on in the hearts and minds of voters, but also propel a candidate closer to the debate stage, since every sale counts as a donation. Campaigns typically employ in-house design and creative teams that can capitalize on buzzy moments, McGowan said. And every purchase offers campaigns invaluable customer data they can use to target messages to supporters: Onesies might tie to an interest in family-related issues, while rainbow Pride gear can translate to a support for LGBTQ rights.
The 2020 Democratic candidates are still honing their messaging. Biden’s branding relies on his trademark aviator sunglasses and uses his first name to convey a familiarity with voters. “Feel the Bern” started as a Twitter hashtag during the 2016 race; now it’s on Sanders’ fanny packs and drink koozies.
Kamala Harris’s red and yellow color palette echoes the 1972 campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. She recently orchestrated a merch moment, selling a “That little girl was me” T-shirt after her testy debate exchange with Biden about school integration.
But Warren has been leading the pack on the branding side with the sheer number of offerings for sale, said Shahla Karimi, director of merchandising for Obama’s 2012 campaign.
She has turned Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s “nevertheless, she persisted” rebuke in Congress to her advantage, fashioning T-shirts, totes, and even glassware (“Persist responsibly”) with the slogan. And a line of “Warren has a plan for that” apparel emerged from her cavalcade of position papers.
And her “plan for that” mantra, Karimi said, has the potential to launch a thousand memes. It’s a reminder of all she’s hoping to accomplish.
It wasn’t long ago that Democrats had the swag advantage, back when the Obama campaign ushered in a new era of retail politics in 2008. Font fanatics hailed Obama’s use of the Gotham typeface, while design junkies gushed over its rising sun logo. Most important, the Obama campaign saw swag as a fund-raising tactic, selling everything from tube socks and dog collars to high-ticket designer items. The campaign brought in $37 million through merchandise sales during the 2008 race.
The Clinton campaign tried to craft a brand during the 2016 election, but none of its merchandise could match the MAGA hat, Karimi said. The Clinton gear felt young, she said, with too many T-shirt styles and too few options for well-heeled women.
“You could have sold a $500 14-karat gold Nasty Woman necklace,” Karimi said. “There wasn’t enough tongue-in-cheek.”
The Trump campaign, however, hasn’t placed a premium on design or personalization as it built its merch juggernaut. This wasn’t as much a strategic move as a symptom of the campaign’s haphazardness. It enlisted no branding experts to design the MAGA hat, which is so minimalist it’s been called “undesigned.” Much like Trump, the MAGA hat is a vessel; the slogan can be interpreted however one likes. And for a swath of America who had felt invisible, wearing one was a bold red way of being seen.
The hats became a cultural phenomenon — and they turned out to be a relatively cheap way to drum up donations. So although Trump’s election shocked the world, from a branding perspective, it seemed inevitable, says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, and author of the forthcoming book “Political Brands.” Trump realized the potency of the slogan early on — he trademarked Make America Great Again in 2012.
“In our lifetimes, the two candidates who had the best branding were Obama and Trump,” Torres-Spelliscy said, while a common thread among losing candidates was “their utter disdain for being marketed and merchandised.”
The Trump campaign may be banking on voters who were hesitant to openly support him in 2016 feeling more brazen in 2020.
Attleboro resident Matthew Deavellar was sporting an official MAGA hat for the first time earlier this month at the New Hampshire rally. He didn’t wear a hat during the 2016 race because he doesn’t like confrontation, Deavellar said. But now, “I feel pretty damn good wearing it.”
Liz Freiberger of Manchester said she cast “an undercover vote” for Trump in 2016, but now sees wearing Trump gear as an act of defiance.
“It’s a statement: ‘Hell, yeah. I did vote,’ ” she said, as she bought an unlicensed “Trump 2020: F*#& Your Feelings” shirt from a vendor outside the arena in Manchester.
Since taking office, the Trump team has been relentless in its selling, using the turn-on-a-dime news cycle to launch products that drum up donations as well as cast aspersions on his critics, from Witch Hunt mugs and bricks in support of the border wall, to the recent release of official Trump drinking straws — a direct rebuke to efforts by environmentalists to ban plastic straws.
McGowan says she’s shocked that no Democrat has been as nimble or aggressive — selling a reusable straw, for example — to counter Trump’s plastic one.
To play catchup, she said, the Democrats would be well served to take a page out of e-commerce playbooks.
“Young people are doing a ton of their shopping on Instagram,” she added, but few campaigns are advertising on the site.
“The tried-and-true best practices when it comes to e-commerce can be applied to online fund-raising, and campaigns are underutilizing them,” McGowan said.
For his part, Trump seemed to lament the idea of giving up “the greatest slogan in the history of politics,” as he stood in the Manchester arena.
“Do we give up Make America Great Again and move to Keep America Great?” he asked the room, in effect an enormous focus group with his supporters. Cheers erupted as he said both slogans, the red brims bobbing as one in the room.
It was good move by Trump. He’s selling both hats.