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Is Trump a marketer?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 14 September 2016 00:01



Donald Trump’s promise – ‘Making America Great again’ with new thinking


The US elections always intrigue me. Just imagine a marketing budget on two brands exceeding $11 billion aimed at getting one brand into the most powerful seat in the world. The only thought that will come into a marketer’s mind will be that the most cutting-edge marketing strategies will come into play. 

What is interesting is that digital marketing spend which is estimated at $1.1 billion for this year’s campaign is forecasted to touch $ 3 billion at the 2020 elections which indicates the future directional change that the world will see.

Don’t watch, be involved

I remember one of my Indian marketing directors telling me “rather than just watching things unfold, one must get involved on what’s happening around the world so that we live a life of ‘learning’ rather than just standing still.”

The US presidential elections is one such event that we are professionals must track and pick up the lessons that we can use it our day to day workings in the Sri Lankan business landscape. One area that needs focussed learning will be to monitor the strategy used by Trump and Clinton on digital communication and new technology to move voter behaviour.


Is Donald Trump a marketer?

Donald Trump is a shrewd businessman, risk-taker and ruthless marketing strategist who believes in out-of-the-box thinking to cut through the clutter. Sometimes this gets him to trouble like the issue of the wall he wanted to erect dividing the US and Mexico which was to be paid for by the Mexican Government. 

Whatever the reality, his name is perhaps one of the most widely-known brands in the world. But the question asked by many is, does this arrogance on media make him a good marketer?

It is difficult to tell based on who you make out from his past business success in the many companies and industries he has been in. Some of them ended in bankruptcy. One is being sued for false claims in their sales and marketing activities. But one can conclude that Trump himself was not the one in control of marketing for many of them, given how hands-off he seems to be, simply attaching his name to things and waiting for the royalties to roll in. 

But as professionals we need to do more fact-finding before arriving at a conclusion on his skill as a marketer for identifying changing requirements and fashioning business to cater to these changing requirements better than the competition. All we know is that he has caught up on his arch rival Clinton to reach 43.4% to 44.5% as at 8 September which cannot get more entrenched in terms of being competitive. 

How about the campaign?

untitled-4Let’s accept it, Trump’s campaign has tapped into the emotional chords among a seemingly-large population of the United States to narrow the gap, is what the latest opinion polls say. Trump is exceptional at stoking their fears, and people truly feel that when he speaks, he speaks for them is what research reveals. Most marketers would love to be in that position as it can move customer behaviour towards your brand. 

Whether it’s on purpose or not, he is an expert on persuasion which is the skill required to be an impactful US President. He uses textbook principles of persuasiveness, such as confidence and certainty, purpose-driven anger, repetition of key points, speaking at a lower reading level, etc. Good marketers know how to persuade.

If you believe that all press is good press, then Trump is the best PR man in the world in my mind. He will not even eat a burger without it being the subject of about one million news stories. Sure, he seems to get press for the wrong reasons more often than the right ones, but the question remains whether or not that matters.

Debate aside, he incites passion in people on both sides. Not many people have passive feelings about Donald Trump. You either love him or you hate him. And while most of us would rather people not hate our companies or brands, we would love to get them the kind of attention Donald Trump gets. Let me pick up some his thinking and implication to Sri Lankan business from this personality.

1. Allow people to underestimate you

Many don’t people underestimate the power of the Trump empire in business, but in politics nearly everyone underestimated Trump and how shrewd he is. The New York Times reports that Donald Trump is “repeatedly underestimated as a court jester or silly showman, (but) Mr. Trump muscled his way into the Republican Elite by force of will”. But Trump used this underestimation to set himself up in a position of authority and power, and he has done this incredibly successfully. 

Pick up to business: When people underestimate you, it gives you an opportunity to work without a lot of fanfare to build a strong base in whatever you are doing. This is just as true in business or in life. Let them underestimate you and then, like Trump, set about proving your detractors very, very wrong.

2. Past as a springboard

One of the biggest keys to success in business or in life is perseverance and knowing how to use your successes and failures to produce your next success. Donald Trump is a master at this. 

He started his career in his parent’s company, and built success after success. And like every successful person, he has also had his share of failures – business bankruptcies, divorces and not being taken seriously in the political process, to name a few. But through it all Trump has used each experience to inform and help the next be better and more successful.

Pick up to business: As entrepreneurs and business owners, this is exactly what we should be doing. Each experience is an opportunity to learn, to become better and to increase our leverage. By using our past as a springboard we can become more and more successful over time.

3. Understand what kind of leader you are

Let’s accept it; Trump is a forced to be reckoned with. His style is authoritarian and he plays on that with great success. I think Trump understood this on an intuitive level far before people in the political process recognised in. Some say Trump’s electoral strength – and his staying power – have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations.

Pick up to business: It’s an attribute worth looking at, because when you understand the type of leader you are and tap into the people who naturally follow that type of leader, you can create tremendous success for yourself and those around you.

4. Focus on the emotions

Some are angry with Trump. Seriously angry. Rage from the left and right can be seen, the despair of independents and the lack of accountability from Washington have fuelled the rise of the Donald Trump movement is what CNN says about the Trump campaign. And they are right, but what is more important here than the fact that many Americans are angry is how these emotions have fuelled the Trump campaign. 

Pick up to business: People buy into ideas and products based on emotion and then back up their decisions with logic. Trump plays into this human dynamic beautifully. As business leaders, we need to as well. Define what makes your ideal customer want to buy and then play into that emotional state. It works.

5. Surprise people

What Donald Trump likes to do the most is take people off guard. This shows up most often in his rhetoric. But every time he says something controversial, he gets news coverage and this works. You don’t have to be as polarising to use this technique effectively. But having a strong point of view and taking people off guard with innovation is nearly always a good thing.

Pick up to business: By constantly innovating and having a strong point of view, you can stay ahead of the game and keep your company on top. Whether you love Donald Trump or hate him, you can’t deny his current power in politics and that he has something to teach us all.

Way forward

None of us know what the reality will be in November. But the pick up to this 11 billion dollar marketing investment and the impact can be good ‘best practices’ that we in business can pick and test in the Sri Lankan market. Let’s try it.


(The writer twice won the ‘Marketing Achiever Award› in Sri Lanka when he was managing the power brand Dettol. He served the UN for five years, when Sri Lanka won ‹the Best Global Project›. Thereafter he worked for Sri Lanka as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board and Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism and today he leads the Rs. 32 billion Lanka Sathosa for the Government of Sri Lanka. 

He is an alumnus of Harvard Kennedy Executive Education.)

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