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The Tactics That Have Gained Donald Trump a Horde of Loyal Followers

The Tactics That Have Gained Donald Trump a Horde of Loyal Followers
Image credit: Andrew Cline /

Hate him or love him, the GOP underdog – yes, that’s billionaire Donald Trump – has made it to the top of the polls. How he’s done it has as much to do with his prominent brand as it does his politics.

From books to board games to bottled water, placing the Trump moniker on a new product has been a surefire way to attract interest. And apparently, the same is true for a political campaign. Even his penchant for crass, controversial statements hasn’t cost him followers.

As a customer marketing consultant, I see brands desperate to recreate that kind of loyalty, searching for a formula to increase customer engagement and drive sales. But even when brands trade scornful statements for softer sales pitches, many still fail. How’s it working so well for such a loudmouth?

Although Trump’s campaign contains many marketing taboos -- the absurd overstatements, the self-centered delivery, the aggressive style -- there are plenty of solid strategies that brands can repeat to stimulate engagement, loyalty and ultimately sales.

Politics aside, let’s look at Donald Trump’s strategies for establishing brand loyalists and dissect how companies can employ the same tactics to enhance their own businesses.

He’s capitalizing on a strong, consistent brand.

Before he was a candidate, Trump was a brand. From casinos to cologne, Trump’s name has been stamped up and down the East Coast for decades. And when “The Apprentice” debuted in 2004, his personality stock value skyrocketed.

Branding is something Trump does quite well. It’s clear. It’s concise. It’s unapologetic. It represents wealth, fame, and the pursuit of both. That may not sound particularly virtuous, but most brands aren’t solely built on morality -- they’re made to resonate with their audiences.

Related: Managing Your Brand Is an Intangible Investment That Pays Off Big

Trump’s brand is deeply embedded in his campaign, and his ability to communicate its message is part of what sets him apart. He’s an entertainer, trained in the dramatic art of reality TV and attention-grabbing antics. Contrast that with his competitors -- traditional career politicians more concerned with appeasing donors, mitigating risk and choosing the proper tie color for a primetime debate -- and you have a brand that effortlessly differentiates itself. 

But such definitive branding also runs the risk of turning a character into a caricature, and The Donald walks that line (see “Cats with Trump Hair” for more proof). At the start of his campaign, Democrats and Republicans alike didn’t take him seriously, assuming it was yet another ploy to keep his name in the headlines. That was, until the polls went up, and his competitors realized his brand packed more political punch than they thought.

There are three key branding lessons for any organization here:

  1. Craft a clear, concise message. Regardless of how many products, services or brand extensions you represent, boil it down to one sentence that shows what you bring to the table. Make it descriptive and detailed. Avoid fluffy buzzwords.
  2. Figure out how to communicate your message. What’s the elevator speech? What does it look like on your website, in your store, and in the media? Make sure your leadership and your boots-on-the-ground employees can articulate it well.
  3. Be human, and don’t become a victim of your brand. People want to interact with other people. Keep the message consistent, but have a few different faces and voices associated with your brand. And if one of you ends up in a viral cat campaign, focus on re-establishing credibility instead of battling the Internet.

He engages followers, and doesn't worry about detractors.

Brands with strong identities and bold statements are inevitably going to put off or alienate some potential customers. Apple and Disney know this better than anyone. Trump is taking the same approach.

Related: Why Reputation Management Is Critical to Your Personal Brand

While most politicians tend to shift strategy based on poll numbers, Trump is staying the course and refusing to backpedal on even his most controversial statements. He addresses his critics -- even the Pope was not immune from Donald’s brash words -- but he doesn’t spend much energy fighting them. Instead, he focuses on engaging with his supporters.

It’s actually quite similar to Obama’s 2008 strategy. To become POTUS #44, Obama used social media to connect with constituents, turning voters into evangelists who activated their own networks. As Fast Company describes, he also used “micro-listening” to gather data across multiple channels to uncover the most effective way to persuade donors and voters.

Two elections later, we now have technology that aggregates multi-channel data for us, and Trump is capitalizing on it. He’s invested resources to know who his followers are, what they look like, and what they want. From there, he’s identifying his most valuable constituents and speaking to their hot-button issues.

Though the rhetoric couldn’t be more dissimilar, there are two major engagement strategies brands can steal from Obama and Trump to achieve success:

  1. Focus on your followers. You will have detractors, and you will have people who aren’t interested in what you’re saying or selling. But barring any major crisis situation, forego trying to win over the naysayers and focus on engaging with your supporters.
  2. Use data to uncover what motivates your customers. Brands can learn what influences a person’s buying habits -- a hometown, an occupation, a relationship status, a pain point -- by connecting online. Translating social data into a customer profile and targeting that person with relevant messages accordingly will increase loyalty and engagement.

Trump is speeding up loyalty by investing in his MVCs. 

At this point, Trump’s political success has surprised almost everyone. Of course, his claim that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody" and not lose followers is hyperbole. But he raises a valid point: Loyalty, once won, is less fleeting than we think.

This is where brands fail to capitalize on opportunity. Most companies spend 80 percent of their budget on customer acquisition and 20 percent on retention. That equation should be flipped, since 80 percent of revenue comes from 20 percent of your customer base.

Related: 10 Powerful Management Insights from Apple, P&G, Yum Brands and Gilt Groupe

As a business mogul, Trump knows this and uses it to his advantage. And it’s the reason that he can make brash, un-Republican statements without damaging his campaign.

Loyalty is built on trust. Whether or not you agree with Trump, his decisions to forsake the political playbook and avoid Washington double-talk make him appear more authentic than his GOP rivals. He’s consistent, not a flip-flopper. Even when his far-reaching statements can’t be confirmed or are outright false, his followers believe he is being truthful. Authenticity cultivates trust; trust begets loyalty.

How can brands establish that same unwavering loyalty? To begin, companies need to:

  1. Break with old-school transaction-based tactics. Earning consumer trust, preference, and loyalty requires an ongoing strategic initiative. Promotional offers bring out people who are loyal to freebies, not your brand.
  2. Identify most valuable customers or constituents (MVCs). Who’s out there stumping for you, singing your praises, and recommending your products? Engagement counts as much as dollars, so don’t limit your MVC search to your big spenders.
  3. Personalize your interactions. Blanket communications are more likely to make customers feel targeted than tended to. Use data to refine which clients receive which messages and you’ll see your response rate increase immediately.

Whether you like him or not, Trump knows how to run a business -- and now he’s applying his loyalty strategies to politics. There are plenty of risks and downsides to his callous style, but brands can find inspiration in his tactics.

Modern customers demand authentic relationships, and there are more ways than ever to establish connections. The question is, can your brand mimic Trump’s loyalty strategy and reap the same kind of reverent fandom?