How Trump Won Using Strategic Branding, and What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Him
Specialization is better than generalization, Trump teaches us. That's why white working-class men loved him.
It doesn’t matter if you’re thrilled or outraged or something in between at seeing Donald Trump become our new president-elect. Objectively, Trump ran an impressive and surprising political campaign, and it’s because of his penchant for personal branding and marketing that he won in such an astounding upset.
If a man with no political experience can pave his way to the highest political office in the country with a handful of marketing strategies, what do you think your business could accomplish using similar tactics?
I’m not saying you should start mimicking Donald Trump’s ideologies or his rhetoric, but there are some important lessons for entrepreneurs to learn in having witnessed this powerful success in personal branding.
Politics and branding
First, it’s important to know that politicians essentially become brands -- personal brands -- when campaigns begin, and this isn’t a new concept. You can see the parallels between corporate brands and political candidates clearly:
- Logos. Hillary Clinton’s oft-praised logo is just the most recent example of candidates using imagery to build recognition and visibility. Barack Obama’s “O” logo has even been described as close to corporate in nature.
- Slogans. Slogans and taglines have been a part of politics for generations, as evidenced by 1840’s “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” which was originally part of a full campaign song.
- Image, voice and reputation. Most importantly, candidates spend time perfecting their image, their voice and how they’re seen by the voting public. This was the most crucial area developed by Donald Trump.
So, how did Trump manage to create such a powerful brand from a cartoonish and politically inexperienced past personality?
The Trump brand
The Trump “brand,” by which I mean his political personal brand -- not any of his corporate endeavors -- was built on a number of principles that made him appealing to the masses.
- Niche-focused. First and foremost, Trump wasn’t trying to win over “America.” He was sharply focused on working-class white males, which is a large, but specific demographic. His messaging became laser-focused and highly relevant to this audience, which led to greater brand evangelism and rapid expansion of his supporter base. His numbers across social media platforms, in comparison to Hillary Clinton's, provide clear evidence of this. In marketing terms, he identified and understood his target market, then developed extremely effective messaging to this segment.
- Extreme. In a similar vein, the Trump brand is extreme. As a person, he is brash, loudmouthed and unapologetic. His tweets almost always include exclamation marks, punctuating the emotion behind them. In policies, he is firm and divisive. To some people, he has become representative of hatred and fear, but to others, he has become a beacon of hope. Trump polarized his audience with emotionally-charged messaging, which, regardless of its truthfulness, led his supporters to become such extreme brand evangelists that they turned out to vote in numbers far higher than anyone -- or any polls -- predicted. This strategy ultimately proved to be stronger than the strategy Hillary Clinton pursued, of trying to be at least moderately likable to everybody.
- Anti-establishment. Trump also played to the general dissatisfaction with both parties felt by the American public. Citizens of all political backgrounds have a distaste for the “establishment,” and Trump served as an almost entirely opposite alternative. This differentiated him from his competitors, and made him stand out to people who felt that they had been forgotten or ignored by the political establishment.
- Nostalgic. According to Stephen Greyser of Harvard Business School, “Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ was designed to make white working-class men remember when things were better for them or, at least, they thought they could remember.” Trump used this nostalgia to support his positions and tap into positive emotions in his supporters, further mobilizing them as evangelists. Popular TV comedy South Park playfully highlighted this fact by portraying the general public as being addicted, unknowingly, to “member berries” (a play on the word “remember”), causing them to feel nostalgic about happy times in their past, partially accounting for the gravitation of many to Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” campaign slogan. It’s worth noting that this slogan was actually first used in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, further appealing to nostalgia for those old enough to remember.
- Transparent. Despite his penchant for telling lies and half-truths, Trump’s controversial statements were well-received by his target audience because they perceive him as being transparent. For many people, a candidate who seems to “tell it like it is” by breaking political norms and conventions is automatically seen as sincerer and more trustworthy.
- Simple. Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has been intentionally vague and concise, never getting into the details of what he’d actually do as president, but leaving behind simple ideas that are appealing and easy to repeat. “Make America Great Again!” is the ultimate example of this. Make America great again how, exactly? It doesn’t matter. It’s simple and easy to remember, and that’s why it spread.
Branding the competition
Trump didn’t just brand himself, however. A major point of his campaign involved branding the competition so he could illustrate his own brand as superior -- as a “winner.” Even in the primaries, Trump steamrolled over his opponents by casting them in specific negative lights. The name “Lyin’ Ted” caught on quickly, and certainly aided Trump’s victory over his more conventional candidate, Ted Cruz.
And of course, “Crooked Hillary” was a standby in Trump’s speeches and overall campaign, as he worked to illustrate the Clinton brand as deceptive and criminal.
Other nicknames he bestowed upon his foes, thereby branding them in the eyes of his supporters, included "Goofy Elizabeth Warren," "Crazy Bernie," "Little Marco" and "Low Energy Jeb." This helped to further differentiate the Trump brand from the competition, and polarize voters further.
So, what are the key lessons for entrepreneurs to learn from this?
- Identify and understand your target market. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Instead, narrow your focus to one key demographic. It’s better to have your target market think you’re absolutely the best than have many groups of people think you’re just “okay.”
- Specialization is better than generalization. For the same reason, it’s better to be a specialist than a generalist. Make your brand known for doing a few things very well rather than lots of things decently.
- Don’t overcomplicate things. The simpler your message is, the more memorable it will be. Remain clear, concise and as simple as possible.
- Use emotions to mobilize your audience to become brand evangelists. Emotion creates action, so trigger emotion in your target audience. If your audience is afraid, or feels neglected or forgotten, use that to your advantage by speaking to their pain points, fears and needs. Mobilize your audience by appealing to emotion within your content strategy.
- Differentiate your brand. Stand out from the competition by being different, and shape your brand to reinforce these key differences. Don’t be afraid to compare your brand to your competition's, to point out how you differ.
This post is not meant to endorse Donald Trump or condone his policies. It’s simply meant as an illustration of the marketing tactics he used to secure victory in one of the strangest elections of our time.
Use these marketing tactics to your advantage in business, and you’ll stand to become equally competitive in your own field.