6 Lessons from Donald Trump’s Winning Marketing Manual

The article below was written by John A. Quelch, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and is part of the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Donald Trump’s upset election win offers six lessons for marketers looking to beat the odds and overcome powerful competitors says John A. Quelch.

Donald Trump’s victory may be a surprise—but not to astute marketers. Here are six important lessons from Trump’s brand marketing playbook:

Give consumers a job. The best marketing campaigns always call on consumers to do something. For example, United invites you to “Fly The Friendly Skies.” Nike insists that you “Just Do It.” The most successful brands also allow their consumers to co-create brand meaning. “Let’s Make America Great Again” is an inclusive call to arms with a powerful goal that each voter can interpret for himself. It embraces passion and purpose. Clinton’s “Stronger Together” is also inclusive but it evokes process, not that process isn’t important, but the desired outcome is much less clear. Good marketers know that, if you don’t position your brand clearly, your competitors will do it for you.

Show the past as prologue. Offering consumers the adventure of voting for an uncertain future never works with the majority, especially if your brand is new to the game. Trump, the political neophyte, won by recalling a better yesterday and promising to recreate it as the better tomorrow. The word “Again” is no accidental addition to the Make America Great slogan. Remember the famous Kellogg’s Corn Flakes campaign to recover lost consumers: “Try Us Again for the First Time.’ For millions of Americans in the rust belt, the good old days really existed and they voted to bring them back.

Pursue forgotten consumers. Most financial firms chase the same high net worth prospects, ignoring or at best taking for granted millions of modestly prosperous people. Trump turned the Democrats’ commendable embrace of diversity on its head to invoke the “Forgotten Man,” winning over lunch-bucket Democrats overlooked by their party as well as bringing in new voters and energizing lapsed ones. At the same time, almost all Republicans came home to vote for their nominee. Good marketers always know how to balance new customer acquisition with customer retention.

Sizzle beats steak. Clinton was always going to beat Trump on the steak of experience and policy knowledge. A new brand can’t afford to get lost in the policy weeds. Hence, Trump’s campaign persona and his contract with the American voter offered more sizzle. Painted in broad brush strokes, the contract emphasizes goals and outcomes, and is light on policy and implementation details. Of course, having begun many a sentence with the words “A Trump administration will…” he now has to deliver the steak. Will Brand Trump deliver on its promises? If not, the consumer won’t repurchase four years from now.

Build enthusiasm. Good marketers know the power of word-of-mouth recommendations. In the era of social media, better organization (the old ground war) and outspending on television advertising (the air war) weren’t enough for Clinton. Trump’s determination and stamina–five speeches a day–and the size of his crowds impressed ordinary voters watching on television much more than Clinton’s barrage of paid ads. The pundits questioned whether enthusiasm would convert into votes. Good marketers know that brand enthusiasm rings the cash register. It did for Trump, but not for Clinton.

Close the sale. Political marketing requires you win a plurality of votes not every day but on a single day once in four years. Timing is everything. Trump learned what worked and what didn’t work as the campaign progressed. He refined his message, suppressed the ad hominem insults, and peaked at the right time, confounding the pollsters and media pundits. In every recent speech, he repeated the same messages, inviting voters to imagine the future if they bought into the promises of a Trump administration. He confidently asserted “we are going to win” this state, “we’re leading in” that state. Consumers not only want to back a winner, they want to back a brand that sees itself as a winner. And they want to back a brand that other people similar to themselves see as a winner. That’s when a brand becomes a movement.

In the last week, brand Clinton promised a bright future but looked like the candidate of yesterday, a little tired and overly reliant on a supporting cast of Obamas and Bon Jovis. By contrast, Brand Trump promised a future that looks like yesterday, Everyman’s high-energy underdog and outsider, disruptive yet decisive, standing alone at the podium, mane flowing, ready to step up to Pride Rock.

Brand Trump is today’s bright new thing. But new is easy. Good is hard. Time will tell whether Brand Trump can deliver on its promises.


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