Swags to Riches: How Trump and Clinton Use Very Different Strategies to Sell Merchandise

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By Ken Danieli | 8:10 am, October 30, 2016

When it comes to winning an election, pundits like to talk about the importance of convincing the undecided voters. But When it comes to selling campaign merchandise, it’s all about playing to the base.

Earlier this month, we looked at the battle of the brands between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Let’s take a closer look at how the campaigns are using promotional merchandise, often called “swag” in marketing, to further their messaging with voters.

Marketers use promotional logo-driven merchandise to drive awareness of their brands and reinforce customer loyalty. In politics, campaigns have long used items like apparel, stickers, signs, and buttons to get their names and themes in front of the electorate.

Back in the day, the campaigns and parties often paid for these items or gave them away to get the word out. Today campaign merchandise is big business. Voters often pay more than the retail price for comparable goods to get their hands on items that promote their favorite candidates.

The Clinton and Trump camps have employed vastly divergent merchandise strategies this year. While Trump is known for being the most unconventional major party nominee in history, perhaps reinventing how election campaigns will be run going forward, his branded gear strategy is solidly traditional.

In contrast, the establishment candidate, Clinton, is the one who’s implemented a different approach to leveraging these perennial campaign weapons.

Clinton is primarily using her online shop to raise funds, while Trump is capitalizing on clearly branded and more affordable merchandise as a tool to get his message out to the voters.

Building on President Obama’s success at creating a very profitable campaign swag operation in 2008 and 2012, Clinton’s merchandise is premium priced, with a hefty markup. It isn’t explicitly focused on broadcasting her “Stronger Together” campaign theme, and often employs very subtle branding.pasted-image-0-10

The H-arrow logo is used much more than her name. In fact, her name or logo often appears very small, in pale ink, on the back, side—or even inside—an apparel item, rather than as part of its main visual message. “Stronger Together” is virtually non-existent in her online emporium.

A crucial caveat is that enthusiasm for Clinton has never approached the popular frenzy that Obama, Trump and Bernie Sanders have generated among the electorate, as evidenced by the empty seats and tepid attendees at her events. Clinton insiders know that enthusiasm for her is well below what they’d hoped for.   

The tech-savvy and well-staffed Clinton campaign is no doubt using the data collected from supporters in its online shop very strategically. (And your personal info and credit card numbers are probably secure with the Hillary for America crew, run by John Podesta. What could go wrong?)

Trump’s merchandise, on the other hand, is popularly priced—likely sold at a smaller profit than Clinton gear, closer to break-even when we consider the cost of running a shop with hundreds of items in various sizes. It also almost always prominently features the TRUMP name and/or his ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” theme, front and center.

Trump himself values his swag. He told a campaign rally in New Hampshire last Friday: “People are coming out who’ve never voted before, and they’ve got the Trump shirt, the Trump hat, and they’ve got buttons all over the place… They may have all of the Trump stuff and maybe they’re voting for Crooked Hillary Clinton?

“I don’t think so.. I don’t think so… History has taught us that we don’t think so.”

Most casual viewers would have to know ahead of time what Clinton’s often-criticized H-arrow logo represents for it to have conveyed any positive brand recognition for the former first lady on most items. It’s akin to something out of the film Fight Club where the participants recognize and silently acknowledge each other on the street. Perhaps that subtle, interpersonal experience is a positive dynamic for her target. Yet it reinforces the sense that Clinton’s merchandise is more club and less candidate.

Hillary Clinton “Jason Wu Tee,” $45

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A prime example is this stylish white cotton t-shirt with faded blue state map images, designed for Clinton by Jason Wu. Deftly tucked between the artfully arranged watercolor states, vanishingly tiny type subtly reads “I’m with her.” (Look closely, it’s there; though it makes you wonder how close you have to get to this young woman to be able to read it.)

There’s no logo or candidate name on the front or back of the pricey pullover. But wait, it does mention the candidate’s name—inside the shirt! (If you’re reading the inside of a lady’s shirt, that’s, by any measure, pretty close.) This top’s all about the $45 for the candidate (make that $51.30 to $55.55, with shipping) and the cachet of the trendy designer’s imprint. It’s not about promoting the candidate to others.

Meanwhile, seeing someone in a typical Trump shirt or hat leaves nothing to the imagination. Its purpose is out there for all to see. Just about everyone knows that “Make America Great Again” is Trump’s theme and his name pops in large type on most items. No fashion designers or subtle logos for this campaign; the merchandise is every bit as overt as the outspoken candidate it promotes. The Donald famously wears one of his trademark hats at most of his rallies. Most of the Trump gear has a clean, modern look, with just a few sporting an old-fashioned state fair aesthetic.

Donald Trump Women’s T-shirt, $20
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A typical Trump item touts his name and “Make America Great Again” theme. Clinton items feature an array of themes, often about women.

CAMPAIGN STORES:

How do the Clinton and Trump campaign stores compare?

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Clinton’s shop offers a large number of products in all categories that emphasize her gender in a variety of ways, e.g., “A Woman’s Place Is in the White House,” “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” “Woman Card,” “Made From 100% Shattered Glass Ceiling,” “She….,” “Madam President,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-damental Rights” (but don’t dare call them “girls,” fellas. You’re no Don Draper!) and “I’m With Her” items.

Most products don’t feature her name prominently. Just one button, bumper sticker, and t-shirt feature the main campaign slogan “Stronger Together.”

Clinton’s Official Woman Card, $5

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On the other hand, in Trump’s store supporters can choose from dozens of “Make America Great Again” items, including apparel, signs, buttons, stickers, accessories, and gifts. The campaign message is the primary feature on the majority of the items throughout the online shop. The TRUMP name, Make America Great Again brand promise, or both, appear prominently on most items.

Many more items bearing the slogan can be found online, on eBay, for example, where today there are over 51,000 Trump-themed men’s t-shirt listings alone. 

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The prices in Clinton’s shop for mainstream campaign apparel, like t-shirts, are much higher than the prices in Trump’s shop. Her typical t-shirt costs 75% more than Trump’s ($35 vs $20, plus shipping). Clinton’s significantly higher prices indicate that her campaign isn’t as concerned with getting her message out to working-class voters to be seen on the street as it is with funding her campaign through merchandise sales to supporters who have the discretionary income to spend well over $40, with shipping fees, on a single t-shirt.

In recent days, a variety of Clinton items have been marked down—perhaps they weren’t moving as quickly as the campaign had hoped. Or perhaps her fans are buying lower-priced versions on eBay instead. Have you seen a lot of her materials out there on the street?

Driving through three solid-blue northeastern states, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, I counted dozens of Trump yard signs. Zero for Clinton. (Granted, I was navigating mostly outer-suburban and rural county highways, not the big cities or posh suburbs that much of her base inhabits.). On the Interstates, I saw many Trump bumper stickers on a variety of vehicles sporting license plates from Florida to Maine. I spied a lone “Hillary!” sticker but that faded example was from Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 campaign on an elderly Massachusetts woman’s car.

Trump’s lower pricing strategy suggests that he wants to get his message out among many more working class voters through affordable merchandise. Trump offers 18 hats and visors, priced at $20 to $30, all of which prominently convey either the Make America Great Again brand statement, the Trump / Pence names, or both. In contrast, Clinton offers a single hat, for $35, that displays the H-arrow logo with no other brand message and a small signature on the side. It’s “cleverly” called “H is for Hat.” (Isn’t H supposed to be for “Hillary?” I know. I know.)

Practically speaking, a hat is a smart branding tool. Most people can wear the same hat every day, but they wouldn’t wear the same t-shirt every day, even if they washed it frequently.

SIMILARITIES:

The two candidates’ online shops have a lot in common. Both Clinton and Trump offer items that support their candidate, whether state-specific or targeting a particular group. Each offers apparel stating support from Women, LGBT, & Veterans for their candidate.

Both feature items that attack or mock their opponent, offer items claiming that they’re Making History, and tout campaign products that are Made in America (Clinton often emphasizes Union Made or Union Printed).

They seem to use the same online shopping and checkout engine. Another similarity is they offer a wide variety of buttons that are similarly priced, usually 2 for $5.

DIFFERENCES:

But a closer look at the merchandise shops reveals some distinct differences in variety, pricing and branding:

SHIRTS:

Clinton’s  70 short-sleeved t-shirts are often priced higher than Trump’s t-shirts. Most are $35,  75% higher than Trump’s typical $20 shirt. Eight of her designer shirts are $45. Several shirts are marked-down in price this week for the first time.

She tends to focus more on her gender or targeted messages than her name or brand theme . Many don’t feature her name on front though mostly use her logo, sometimes small on the back.

By contrast Trump’s more than 100 short-sleeved t-shirts are much lower-priced than Clinton’s. The vast majority are $20 and the most expensive is $35. There is a consistent focus on the brand message—most feature Trump’s name and/or Make America Great Again slogan prominently on the front.

A variety of “I’m a Deplorable” designs attempt to turn Clinton’s attack into a badge of unity.

HATS:

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Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat, $25. Clinton’s “H is for Hat,” $35.  

Clinton sells just one hat, priced at $35, higher than all of Trump’s hats. It features the large H-arrow logo in front with no mention of “Stronger Together” or “I’m With Her”.

Trump’s 18 hats are focused on brand message and name visibility—15 hats include “Make America Great Again” while  11 or more include “Trump / Pence ” name(s). Most include both the slogan and the name.

HOMEWARE / GIFTS:

In the Clinton Homeware category and Trump Gift categories, each candidate offers coffee mugs, playing cards, and can koozies:

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Hillary has offered a wide assortment of “just add alcohol” glassware: shot, wine, champagne, and pint glasses but now sells just the pint glasses). Most feature “Made from 100% Shattered Glass Ceiling” and the H-Arrow logo.

Alas the Clinton glassware line is now out of stock (just as well as Hillary supporters haven’t had much news to raise a glass to these past few days).

Trump offers reusable double-wall insulated plastic 16-oz red drink tumblers. Priced 4 for $23, it is less than half the price per item of Hillary’s glassware (2 for $25).  All  feature “Trump 2016” and “Make America Great Again”.

Hillary could have offered more clearly branded products at popular prices to help create a sense of grassroots momentum for her campaign on America’s streets, but decided, instead, to pursue a “follow the money” strategy.

Whether Trump’s campaign made or lost money on his merchandise doesn’t matter much. His strategy has been effective at getting his name and theme out among the voters.

After it’s all over, we’ll be able to see whether Clinton’s unorthodox merchandise strategy was as profitable for her campaign as she hoped it would be.

Ken Danieli is a brand strategist.

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