Huge branding lessons from Donald Trump

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TinaZwolinski_byline

This has been the most unusual national primary season of my life. I’ve watched every single debate, attended live rallies, met many of the candidates face-to-face, and observed more of the presidential political process than ever before. In my work I help companies build their brands and market directly to consumers, so I haven’t been able to resist viewing the selection process for presidential nominees through that filter. The remaining candidates have been trying to sell their brand directly to “the consumers” for many months. Watching this play out through that marketing lens has helped bring some order to the campaigns.

Perhaps the greatest success so far at brand marketing has been the rise of “The Blue-Collar Billionaire” Donald Trump. He appears to be on the verge of winning the Republican nomination. We’ve had populist “non-political” candidates before – Ross Perot comes to mind. And perhaps the past failures of those candidates is a part of why the political class didn’t take Mr. Trump seriously this time last year. Things have changed.

Without commenting on his style, substance or politics, it’s obvious that Trump is doing some things right from a branding perspective. I think we can learn some things about the basics of building a corporate brand from his success over the past year. Below are two of the six marketing principles that are working for Mr. Trump and that work for businesses and brands everywhere.

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1: When an industry fails, and when consumers are weary of a set of products or services, the “revolutionary” product or service just might win the day.

 

Of course, this is a matter of timing, isn’t it? Offer a “revolutionary” product when an industry is stable and comfortable – when consumers are satisfied – and the revolutionary is often ignored. But when consumers are deeply dissatisfied with an industry and with the products and customer service being offered by that industry, the timing is ripe for the revolutionary.

In the late 1970s it was the auto industry that was ready for the revolutionary. Today it’s health care, among others – consumers are deeply dissatisfied, and feel trapped and underserved.

The point is: Many see Trump as a revolutionary whose time has come. I suspect that the political industry will be changed, from top to bottom, even down to the county/city level, as a result of Trump’s campaign.

2: Earned media carries farther than purchased media.

 

It’s wonderful to have the budget to air ads, and targeted advertising can be helpful in reaching a market. But our culture greatly values non-paid media attention, “earned media.” This has something to do with credibility and authenticity, both valued perceptions in the 21st century. The idea is that if the media are discovering and publishing positive or even neutral stories about your brand, then you’re offering something of value; consumers pay far more attention to those stories then to purchased media.

I think most observant Americans have noticed that Trump has owned the media and news cycle. But how has he done this?

I think several factors have been in Trump’s favor.

 

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First, prior to running for office, Trump hosted the television reality show “The Apprentice” for more than a decade, which further established him not only as a household name, but a business expert. Relationships were already in place with the media when he began his campaign, which has only helped his air time.

Second, the Trump brand is difficult for the media to ignore. Trump makes news, and for news outlets to ignore the things he says or does leaves them open to the charge that they are ignoring news. A part of that ability of Trump’s is his “brand tone,” which is frank, blunt and assertive. Further, everything he does and says – from his dramatic arrivals at rallies in a plane or helicopter (nicely calculated for both TV and live audiences) to his Twitter misspellings, which end up being shared and retweeted far and wide – is calculated to earn media attention. He’s been incredibly accessible and open to interviews and media appearances – he is unafraid of the media. The contrast between this attitude and other candidates’ is striking and gets us back to the market’s interest in a “revolutionary.”

Finally, Trump has rightly recognized that the media needs “eyeballs” in order to garner ad revenue. A show or debate that nobody watches cannot charge a premium for the ads aired during that show. High audience scores mean significantly greater ad revenue. Since Trump brings viewership – and thus ad revenue – to any show on which he appears, both he and the media share a symbiotic partnership. As long as Trump brings “news” through what he says or does, the media will air it, if only for their own revenue and for the markets who are watching with avid interest.

As business leaders observe the brand management of the major candidates this season, consider these questions:

  • In what ways are my industry’s customers deeply dissatisfied, and how might a revolutionary product or service attract them?
  • What natural stories do I have to share about the business or brand that I lead? How might these stories be of interest to readers, media and customers?
  • What truthful things am I afraid of saying out loud to my customers, vendors or peers within my industry? How might I or my business be more honest and authentic in our communication?
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