Donald Trump and lessons in marketing
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Donald Trump and lessons in marketing

Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidency might have surprised some commentators, but his strategy is a lesson in the basics of marketing.

Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign, and the transition period leading up to his inauguration, has certainly not been free of controversy. In the media, predictions of how the businessman and reality TV star will change the world have varied wildly, to say the least.

And yet, for marketers, Trump’s success might be considered less of a mould-breaker than the media might have us believe. His success, and his presidency, are guided by forces that look surprisingly familiar.

A simple message

‘Make America Great Again.’ This is Trump’s message in its most concise form. Everyone from policy-makers and global leaders, to academics and the wider populace, might wonder what it actually means at a practical level, but the populist simplicity of the message taps into a deep-seated and rather timeless desire for ‘things to get better’. Indeed, it is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s successful campaign in 1997, set to the music of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Simple messages are, as every marketer knows, effective.

Controversy is not a PR solution

So far, controversy has seemed like water off a duck’s back to Trump. While he might not be able to maintain this lucky knack in the longer term, it’s a reminder that the public rarely expects a politician/celebrity/brand (and Trump is all of these) to be squeaky clean at all times – a global welter of brand and corporate scandals has put paid to that. Instead, what the public wants is a brand to deliver on the promises it is making ‘now’. If those promises aren’t answered, that’s when controversy will start to have its impact. What this means is that, in effect, all brands are on probation – and marketers must ensure they don’t break its terms.

Know your audience

Trump’s campaign wagered on lack of trust in the establishment among a large segment of voters. To target this relatively untapped audience, he created a product that was truly an alternative to what had gone before – in presentation at least. Furthermore, he also understood that it wasn’t simply that people wanted ‘change’ (people always want both ‘change’ – and also ‘things to stay the same’ – in varying degrees). He realised that a few well-chosen expressions of his brand values would add ballast to the campaign; protecting US jobs and business, and reducing immigration, for example. This could then be amplified using some innovative brand messaging – “build a wall”. His audience understood this message implicitly.

Don’t take a narrow view

The danger for Trump, however, is that focusing on force of personality or a singular promise (the wall, again) might be taking too narrow a view of his core supporters’ aspirations and demands, while it also leaves the expectations of the broader population unengaged. Marketers know that a narrow vision brings focus but limits reach. This could prove dangerous for Trump, too.

Humour has its limits

To put it mildly, Trump has reacted with alacrity to issues that many would approach with studied seriousness. Underpinning this strategy in his media engagements, is what could be termed a ‘sense of humour’. This can be understood in two ways: he makes fun of things; and he asks for people to humour him – to tolerate his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. This quirkiness, however, might have a sell-by date. A joke endlessly repeated ceases to be funny, and this also goes for brands that use humour and quirkiness to sell a product. Sooner or later, more meaningful values need to speak for themselves.

Social media’s power is its unpredictability

When Barack Obama won his first presidential race, his campaign was celebrated as being the first political campaign to really utilise social media to engage the electorate. Eight years on and Trump’s unmediated comments on Twitter demonstrate the flipside of social media’s global reach. Obama’s social media strategy was orchestrated and slick; Trump’s is anything but – and yet its power to influence is still as considerable as it can be unpredictable. For social media marketers, the tension between these two opposing strategies will look very familiar.

Martin Bewick Content Lead CPL
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