His brand is huuuge: What marketers can learn from the Trump campaign

As the U.S. presidential primary elections continue, it’s hard to ignore the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. Brand owners should take note, for the businessman turned would-be leader of the free world embodies some key principles of 21st century branding best practices.

Like or loathe his manner and the opinions he so readily shares, he is having a tremendous impact, not least in New Hampshire, where he cruised to a thumping 20-point victory over his Republican rivals earlier this week. Brand Trump appears to be resonating. In fact, from a brand management perspective, it is very hard to criticise his current tactics.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

Firstly, he embodies that critical, endlessly-discussed and rarely realised quality: transparency. Trump is never afraid to say what he thinks and has been consistent in this throughout his campaign, speaking with a clarity few politicians possess.

Rather than talking about transparency, Trump is actually acting it out and that’s a big part of why his message is resonating so well. The best way to describe the language he uses is honest simplicity. He’s speaking the language of the people and helping to bring them into the debate.

Partly as a result of Trump’s verbal identity, he also seems to be winning on differentiation, a critical component for brand success. Far too many brands (and politicians) try to be something for everyone. They blend in rather than stand out. Donald has a clear sense of his personality, and he’s fearless in communicating that to voters in the way he walks, talks, and how he acts. How he seeks to differentiate himself through his opinions and the way in which he expresses them are shocking to many, but from a brand management POV, it’s difficult to fault.

Relevance is another crucial attribute every brand needs to consider. Trump has tapped into something very important that cannot be ignored, and he’s doing it in a way that few other politicians are able to do. Yes, his approach could be described as particularly exploitative and some may say shameful, tapping into the fears of ordinary people, but you can’t argue that Trump is failing to channel a very real and current sentiment.

In an interconnected world where action is at least as important as advocacy, we also have to ask if, differentiated and transparent as he is, is Brand Trump motivating? Typically, what brands need to do to motivate consumers is invite participation and inspire action. Trump is clearly an action-oriented politician, less about the rhetoric and more about absolute commitments. He’s a master at provoking an emotional and active response from voters.

So from a brand perspective, Trump obviously scores very highly. There are positive lessons the political world can take from this on the need to bring politics back to being about social change and actually impacting real people’s lives. He’s bringing politics back into the hands of voters. How he differentiates himself has the potential to really change the way things are done in politics.

But there are two more crucial criteria to take into account. Judged on these, Trump is less sure-footed: notably, is the brand future-proofed and is it credible? The majority of Trump’s ideas and the actions he takes are tactical, they’re not strategic. His supporters may disagree, but there’s little sense of a strategic view on how to drive America forward. For example, his long term view on what role the U.S. should play on the international stage is unclear, which will inevitably undermine his credibility. Similarly, brands lacking a long-term vision also risk falling through the credibility gap.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

So, while Brand Trump scores highly on transparency, differentiation, relevance and motivation, his future-proofing and credibility represent his major impediment. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Trump, it’s his astonishing ability to emerge as the underdog who surprises everyone. But will he credibly play that role in the later stages of this election? I’m not convinced. Trump’s campaign is filled with tactics to motivate people in the current climate and on current fears. When those fall away, he risks falling with them.

This article was first published as “His brand is huuuge” in The Economist Group’s Marketing Unbound (February 2016).

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