The marketing of Donald Trump

TrumpA fundamental rule of etiquette is to never talk about religion or politics in polite company, but the rise of The Donald is too fascinating to NOT talk about, assuming I am now in company that is, in fact, polite. So let’s set aside the polarizing politics that are driving this bizarre train and consider the Trump candidacy purely as a marketing case study. I’m neither endorsing nor denouncing Mr. Trump, I’m simply observing the historical reality of the moment and how we arrived here.

At its core, politics is always about marketing, but in the case of Trump it seems that the outside layers of nuance and policy have been so marginalized that we’re left with only the core. Clearly, Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep well of anger that is responding not to strategies, positions or even a political philosophy, but to raw emotion. It’s classic niche marketing, brought to bear with a simply stated, simply understood promise: “Make America Great Again.”  This critical mass of pissed off people aren’t interested in hearing the details of how such a thing may happen; in fact, they’re fed up with the status quo of policy wonks forever making promises they won’t keep. No longer trusting in politics as usual, they’re turning to politics as the highly unusual.

Into this emotionally charged maelstrom strides The Donald, foregoing even the most basics of “best practices” campaigning to create a brand that, inexplicably to some, many support. He did this first by gaining a huge amount of attention, riding a free wave of social media and a 24-hour news cycle that couldn’t look away from what its pundits considered a political oddity. They smugly recorded his every word from their ivory towers in the Fourth Estate, diligent in their duty to make sure the sideshow freak never reached the center ring. What they missed was the ground swell of populist anger that Trump clearly understood. And they played perfectly into the Trump marketing playbook that knows that being front and center in the minds of the target audience is more important than being loved by the establishment.

The second thing that Trump the Marketer did was clearly differentiate himself from the competition. Seeing his inconsistent, unfiltered, and often outrageous approach as brand suicide, the traditionalists rolled their eyes and dropped their jaws, but had no effective response. Trump’s genius was in recognizing what his rivals didn’t: that his target market is much less interested in specific policies than they are in the overarching narrative that he will make American great again. Like every great marketer he simplified and streamlined his selling proposition, making it easy to understand and hard to forget.

Trump also did what every student of Marketing 101 knows what must be done: he offered a simply articulated and perceived benefit. There may be very little substance or coherence to it as policy, but he’s saying what others won’t, and that appeals to the disgruntled masses. He understands his audience and puts his outlandish positions together in a pitch that resonates with them. Like every good marketer he has aligned his brand promise with what he knows is important to people.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump has turned politics as usual on its head because he’s a great marketer. He’s built his brand through a raw and over-simplified, yet highly effective attribute-benefit proposition. So far it’s working, though the real test is yet to come.  To win in November, he’ll need to shift from being a niche brand to one with broader appeal, a difficult challenge for any marketer, even The Donald.

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