Brand-Building 101 By Donald Trump

Like many around the US and the globe, I stand with a mix of shock and consternation at Donald Trump’s run for the White House, and the fact he is actually the leading Republican candidate at this stage. How can this be?

However one is turned off by The Donald, in the spirit of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as marketers and brand-builders we must step back and assess the Trump phenomenon and see what we can learn. What can be reapplied to our businesses?

I grew up in the classically trained P&G School of brand building. And as infuriated as I may be by what Trump has to say and the positions he takes, as a marketer I have to admit that he nails several of the branding fundamentals quite well. And this is why he is leading.

What does he do well? It boils down to three key branding principles:

1. You have to stand out from the crowd. Most brands have many competitors to contend with. Trump is no different, with 15 legitimate Republican candidates crowding the field and all fighting for airtime. I have shot over 3,000 advertising films in my career, and if I learned anything, it’s that the most important factor for success is “watchability.” If consumers don’t choose to watch your ad, it doesn’t matter what you say or show, the message won’t hit home. It all starts with people taking notice of you. And Trump is getting noticed. You may not like what he says, but he is so provocative and entertaining that he commands viewing of his “advertising.” Too many brands — and all political candidates are brands — adopt boring and “vanilla” positions, language and tone. And nobody notices them! So they get lost in the crowd. Trump is noticed. And people know what he stands for.
2. PR is a brand’s best advertising. Consumers readily recognize a paid ad as a brand blowing its own horn, and of course ads are positive — in fact, overly positive. So most ads are viewed with skepticism and vetted carefully in the mind of the consumer. However, PR that results in press coverage is regarded as more unbiased and credible. People will believe more in a newspaper article than a paid ad on TV. PR is so important that many brand gurus will tell you, “Any PR is better than no PR,” and it’s true. Years ago I shot an ad in the UK for one of my brands. Well, it seemed the actress lied to us about her acting history and she actually was a semi-famous porn actress in her past! The British press picked this up and jokes were made in many leading press outlets. I was appalled and preparing to pull the ad, but my boss intervened and encouraged me to wait and see under the proviso of “any PR is good PR.” And he was right. The business spiked to grow double-digits, solely on the PR value of the news story!

Twenty years ago a term was coined for this kind of marketing: “controlled controversy” — using provocative and controversial positions to generate controlled but not over-the-top PR for a brand. And the master of this strategy has been Benetton, airing very outrageous and provocative ads that then generate a firestorm of PR. This has worked to build the global Benetton brand quite successfully. Yes, they have had a few backfires, and they have had to apologize occasionally, but it’s irrefutable that the brand is well established and memorable.

Trump is executing this strategy brilliantly, following in the long line of celebrities who use controlled controversy as their marketing strategy to build their brand — doing and saying outrageous things to keep grabbing headlines. Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton the Kardashians all belong to this genre. They don’t earn headlines for anything noble or outstanding; they earn them by controversy and provocative statements or actions. Sadly, in many cases, it works. And Trump is brilliantly running the playbook for winning headlines. And this is the best media one can get.

3. Consistency of message: The best brands find a meaningful message and stick to it. For years. Decades even. Brands that are always changing strategy are the sickest brands. Every time a brand changes its position, the brand is forced to start over and loses the cumulative effect of advertising.  You may not like Trump’s positions on issues such as immigration, but boy, does he stick to his position! Never changes. Never apologizes. Never backpedals.  Never “clarifies” his comments. Brands that do these things, particularly in politics, come off as weak and “flip-floppers” pandering to the polls. Strong brands don’t waver in their position! Nike has stood for “Just do it” for going on 30 years now. This is what strong brands do: they define a position and stick to it. Trump may be controversial, he may infuriate you, but he sticks to what he says, to the point that his refusal to apologize itself generates more headlines!

At the end of the day, any brand-builder can put aside personal views and learn from Trump. He is destroying quite a potent field of candidates in the polls, so it’s worthy to note why he is winning. The bigger question is, “Will he win?” and this boils down to the breadth of appeal of the message. Trump is clear on his message and smart in marketing that message, as noted above. But is his position a “market leader” position enough to take the top spot? I suspect not. His message mostly resonates with the bona-fide “Tea Partiers” who are only about 25 percent of the US population. For many others, his positions are not only provocative but also polarizing in a negative way. Very few are neutral on Trump and that is the risk of such a strategy. You either love him or hate him.

I would wager he won’t win because his position is not broad enough to win 51 percent of the country, or “51 percent market share.” But what he does have is a quite potent loyal supporter base of 25 percent. And that is nothing to sneeze at. Many brands — in fact, most brands — would love to garner a market share of 25 percent loyal users!

May I suggest however, that while you may adopt Trump’s strategies, you may want to avoid his hairstylist!