One of the fascinating parts about my work is being able to translate and apply insights and principles from one industry to other industries. During the past two articles, I’ve looked at branding principles that businesses can use from the fascinating world of politics, particularly in the rise of an industry “revolutionizing” brand in the candidacy of Donald Trump. In future articles, I’ll be examining branding principles that businesses can glean from other aspects of the presidential race, including what the two main presidential nominees and their parties will need to do in order to compete against one another for “consumer dollars” — that is, votes.
In this article, I want to try to answer this question: Without commenting on his style, substance or politics, what marketing and branding principles might Trump’s competitors for the Republican nomination have used to effectively compete against “the Trump brand” and earn consumer support, i.e., votes? How might they have improved their branding and marketing? And where did they go wrong?
1) Never underestimate a competitor, especially if that competitor is engaged in responding to serious customer dissatisfaction in an industry.
I believe the greatest mistake Republican candidates made over the past year was to dismiss Trump and the desperate, deeply dissatisfied consumers who supported him. Other nominees didn’t adequately prepare for the “Trump political brand,” his rise, his rhetoric, his debate style or much of anything else. They dismissed him, and they dismissed the market to which he appealed.
Had they been more aware of the anger of the dissatisfied market — and the perceived urgency for change from that market — they would have been at least a little wary of a revolutionary, industry-changing product like the Trump brand. Whether industry leaders like it or not, a revolutionary brand is responding, however crudely, to some perceived deficiency in the market. We can always learn from our competition, even if only what not to do. Occasionally we may look at our competition and recognize that they know and are responding to something we don’t know.
One way the lack of preparation most revealed itself was during the debates. In each debate, the candidates seemed to be taken aback by Trump’s aggressive behavior and rhetoric, and didn’t seem to know how to respond. While they waited, vacillated, dismissed and sputtered, Trump’s audience and market share grew.
At the very least, the candidates needed to address the lack of a level playing field within the debates — the unwillingness of the moderators, each time, to cut Trump’s microphone when it wasn’t his turn to speak.
The unpredictable behavior, the uncertainty and the fireworks that Trump provided on the debate stage fed into the media’s desire for more eyeballs, and thus more ad revenue (see my point in a previous article about Trump’s earned media). Because of this bias toward fireworks from the networks, the remaining candidates needed to present a united front to the networks on the principle of uninterrupted speaking time for candidates.
2) If you are genuinely close to the consumer — aware of his needs and fears — you will use language like “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “my team.”
It’s been ironic to watch the richest man in the race continually identify himself with the middle class and blue-collar workers. If we are genuinely serving a market through our products and services, then we are able to claim identification with that market. Their problems are our problems. Their frustrations are our frustrations. Their triumphs are our triumphs because we are a part of the market ourselves. It’s when we stand outside of the market that we refer to what “I” will do for “you” rather than how “we together will meet our challenges.”
3) Stay true to yourself.
Knowing and studying your competitor and the market’s needs is a good thing. But pretending to be your competitor and to share in his strengths and weaknesses is a mistake. The most obvious example of this is Rubio’s decision in one of the final debates to mimic Trump’s brash rudeness and bullying. Audiences were startled at Rubio’s behavior — it wasn’t “like him” and it came across as fake and shrill. The decision to mimic a competitor means that you haven’t examined the needs of the market enough to know how to offer the best of your products and services to meet those needs. Further, you’ll probably never be the revolutionary brand as authentically or as well as the revolutionary brand itself.
4) Discover your message and stick to it.
Be prepared to speak about the things that your competitors aren’t addressing. In branding terms this is called “positioning.” Positioning a product, service or brand in the market simply means meeting needs and providing the benefits that others are not providing.
So often over the past year, Trump has, in a crowd of competitors, acted as the master of ceremonies, sucking his competitors into his conversation, his methods and ruling the stage. His competitors reacted to him and his provocations. They fed his story with their own responses — but rather than knock down his positions, they merely highlighted them further in front of a watching world.
Along the way they didn’t have their own conversation with the market, share their story or differentiate their brand in the market. Trump’s outrageous behavior and speech flooded the debate stage, the airwaves, the sets of the talking heads and analysts and the living rooms of everyday citizens; it sucked the air out of the room so that his competitors often forgot to put their ideas and message forward in their zeal and frenzy to address his latest insults, generalizations, errors in fact and more.
Generally speaking, when a watching market sees — in a sea of products and services — a “Trump” brand and various “not-Trump” brands, the Trump brand will win. It’s hard to tell your authentic story and to reveal your distinct strengths by simply demonstrating that you’re not-that-competitor-over-there.
5) Be talkable.
Yes, I am shamelessly stealing my company’s slogan, but it’s the shortest way I know to say that if you are the owner of a company or the creator of a brand, you must make your own news. I mentioned in a previous article the power of earned media over paid media.
But you can’t have earned media unless you… earn it. That means discovering the genuine news about your brand and making certain that reporters and customers and friends and employees and referral sources know that news.
Every moment you spend responding or reacting to your competitor’s earned media is a moment wasted — you’re effectively talking about him rather than yourself, his brand over your brand.
- How many times have you gathered a dozen of your customers in a room and peppered them with substantive questions about their lives, their work, their industry, their competitors, their greatest fears, the hardest thing about their jobs, the costs of doing business, where they feel like they’re failing and succeeding, their favorite movies, their favorite music, their families?
- This year, have you sat down with your leadership team and created a list of five things your closest competitors are doing right?
- If a reporter from a business magazine told you that she had been told to find a “good news” story on a company in your industry, what good news would you have to share with her about your company?
Tina Zwolinski is the CEO and founder of ZWO, a branding and marketing firm that engages brands and consumers in remarkable ways. With its headquarters in Greenville, S.C., a West Coast office in Laguna Beach, Calif., and an office in Latin America, ZWO has advised and consulted with clients in diverse industries for more than 20 years, gaining particular expertise in apparel, student housing, senior living, retail, sports, events and youth markets. For further conversation, you may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at linkedin.com/in/tinazwolinski.