The Trump Secret: Marketing

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“I’m a bit of a P. T. Barnum. I make stars out of everyone.” Donald Trump

Donald Trump is running for President. Seriously, he really means it this time. And to the shock of many people, he’s currently the front runner for the Republican nomination. Pundits and media types are all scratching their heads wondering how it is this brash, antagonistic businessman and media tycoon suddenly leaped to the front as a Presidential candidate. It’s easy. It’s marketing, and Donald Trump has been at it most of his adult life.

The media would probably like us to believe elections are about ideology. It’s a nice sentiment but for many voters, it’s about their ‘comfort zone’.  The media want us to believe that a disagreement in one area is a disagreement across the board. The truth is, disagreements happen every day. It doesn’t define a person, color or generation. It just means we haven’t met our clone. But many candidates have seen successful careers fall to the wayside because they tried (unsuccessfully) to fit into those media conventions. Donald Trump makes his own conventions, right or wrong. But the key to his current success is the marketing he’s been doing since the early 70’s.

In 1971, Trump was just three years into his tenure with his father’s real estate company, Elizabeth Trump and Son, when he was given control. One of the first things he did was re-brand. He renamed the company, The Trump Organization. Early on, Donald Trump realized that brand recognition was a key component for growth. His initial projects were heavy on architectural design. Why? He understood that public buy-in was a key component for growth in his industry and he wanted people to notice. He took over management of the construction of the Javit’s Convention Center after initially being snubbed – he did it for free. The center was behind schedule and over budget. Trump finished the construction under budget in only three months. Then it was on to Atlantic City and ultimately, Hollywood.

The story of Donald Trump is well known, but the lesson to be learned may be less obvious. That lesson is simple: never stop marketing. You don’t know if or when a perfect storm of opportunity might arrive but if you’ve been marketing your company/products or services effectively and consistently and with an eye toward the future, you just may find you’re winning more than losing. Building a brand philosophy that has consistency across all layers of a company (sales, customer service, operations, finance, HR, etc..) can realize significant, future benefits. But what does ‘brand philosophy’ mean?

Let’s use Trump as an example: For the Trump brand, the philosophy surrounds the notion of “winning”. Big battles or small, the Trump brand wants to always appear to come out the winner. The often ostentatious rhetoric and sparkly buildings speak to the same philosophy. You may argue that a mindset is not marketing and that Trump is more concerned with PR than marketing but the reality is, they are tightly wound together.

So today, when Donald Trump says things that would easily sideline any other politician, his campaign isn’t hurt. The fact is his popularity grows. Why? Because his brand philosophy has become a philosophy that agrees with his audience. And he is only able to do this because he continually markets his brand and sticks to his brand philosophy. And now, when the perfect storm of discontent has Americans wanting to ‘win’ more than lose, a trusted ‘winning’ brand begins to connect. There is no question that if Donald Trump had not been marketing himself and his brand for the last forty years, he would not be in a position to make such a connection. He is a living example of why continuous (and smart) marketing works.

Corporations spend a lot of money and resources sticking hooks in the water, hoping for a bite but that’s not continuous marketing; that’s just being hopeful. Continuous marketing relates to a brand philosophy. It says that marketing is done with a vision that reaches beyond the product or offering. It should be visible to customers, industry people and most importantly, your staff. It should be consistent, it should be current and it should be simple to digest…like “winning”.

Does your company have a brand philosophy? 

If not, here is a good exercise: Think about your company (your brand). What jumps into your head? Now try to put yourself in the place of a prospect. What might be jumping into their head? How do think they view your brand? Ask a colleague, a part time employee, the receptionist, your family. Are there any similarities to what they are saying? If you are getting a variety of answers, you would likely benefit from adopting a brand philosophy.

Unlike a mission statement or a vision statement that clarify the ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’, a brand philosophy is a brief statement or a few words that set a cultural tone for the company. This tone would then permeate the marketing in one form or another. For the Trump brand, it’s “winning”, for your company, it may be “compassion”, “low price, high tech”, “strength and endurance”. It could be just about anything.

How do you develop a brand philosophy?

You do it through engagement. The most successful companies in the world engage their staff in meaningful ways that generally work to benefit the company. Try a whiteboard session with management. Ask them to describe what the company means to them in a few words or a single sentence. Print out handouts for your staff that have key words and phrases generated from the management meeting. Ask them to simply circle words or phrases they think best describe the company (this sounds more onerous than it is). Make it anonymous. Why printed pieces? Because emails get ignored and people still enjoy a little retro-corporate activity.

Look over your results and ask yourself if your philosophy is in line with your staff. If it’s not, you have a road map toward fixing it. If it is, much of the heavy lifting is already done. You simply need to formalize your philosophy into words and phrases.

How do you implement a brand philosophy?

You do it incrementally. Find the low hanging fruit and go after that first. It may be a re-branding effort or simply addressing some internal staff needs. Staff and consumers are generally wary of too much change too quickly. However, slow incremental change can paint a mental picture of the brand that says you are engaged and listening.

Sit down with the marketing team and challenge them to present ad campaigns that reflect the branding philosophy. If you have a Human Resources department, ask them what programs, events or awards might fit into the branding philosophy. Learn from the past: Review where you’ve been. What worked and what didn’t.

How do you know if it’s working?

You don’t. Not right away you don’t. Marketing is the toughest ROI of any organization. It’s extremely difficult to tie closed deals, employee satisfaction and the bottom-line to specific marketing efforts. However, if you’ve done your homework and followed your philosophy throughout the organization and the industry, you have a much better chance of achieving success.

It’s all about pressure and time.

Just like “Red” narrated in the Shawshank Redemption, “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time.” Marketing is no different. If it’s consistent and focused and done with a branding philosophy in mind, marketing works.

Just ask Donald Trump.

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