I wouldn’t vote for him if he was the last person on earth, but Donald Trump makes an interesting case study in digital dominance and brand building.
Trump has lasted far, far longer than anyone expected. His eminent collapse has been predicted by almost every established media outlet, over and over again, but here we are—just days before the New Hampshire primary, and he’s still in front. Outrageous comments and policies that would sink any other candidate only seem to embolden Trump’s followers.
I distinctly remember buying the book The Selling of the Presidentwhen I was in college, fascinated with the book cover depiction of then-candidate Richard Nixon on a package of cigarettes. At the time, it was shockingly revealing to suggest that Nixon was being sold (gasp) like a product. We’ve come a long way. Political candidates are now openly accepted as brands.
The January 18 issue of Time magazine postulates that Trump has used the same digital forces to upend civil life that Netflix did with Blockbuster, or that Craigslist did with newspaper classifieds. There’s even a name for it: disintermediation. Simply put, it means taking out the middleman. In every instance, Trump “has sidestepped the middleman—party, press, pollsters and pooh-bahs—to sell his candidacy directly to voters,” says Time.
Technology has given the power of direct relationships to everyone and “The Donald” has nurtured more of those relationships than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Trump has three times as many Facebook likes than Cruz and 17 times as many as Bush. And he’s ahead of Clinton in Twitter, Instagram and Facebook popularity as well.
These social media relationships feel more intimate, more genuine than the relationships we get through intermediated channels like television, magazines and newspapers. Which might explain how Trump can get away with his often-outrageous comments. His followers already know him and therefore excuse him like an eccentric uncle. Trump’s social media followers revel in the disruption of what they call “the lamestream media” and he plays into their attitude by frequently abusing his own traveling press corps.
It’s not likely that Trump’s lead in the polls is due to his platform. In fact, his platform is purposefully vague. His stump speeches rarely elaborate on how he’ll fix the problems besetting America. He talks more about his business successes than his specific plans as potential president. Which is exactly what you should do if you’re more about building your brand. Emphasize the emotional appeal. Skip the specifics.
While many voters don’t like Trump, his supporters’ still find him to be “straightforward,” “smart,” “strong” and “bold,” according to a study of perceptions conducted by the Kellogg School and Brand Imperatives. He is effectively leveraging the brand he built before the presidential race, during his days on “The Apprentice.”
Trump is an “outlaw” and a “creator”. When we are engaged for brand strategy, we use the well-accepted brand archetype methodology based on the psychology of Carl Jung. Most politicians fall into the all-knowing “rulers” or spread-the-wealth “caregivers” — but not Trump. He is better classified as an outlaw. He doesn’t follow the traditional rules of political engagement. As I write this today, Trump asserted that Ted Cruz “stole” Iowa. “A lot of people wish they could be that egotistical and get away with it,” says Edward Boches, professor of advertising at Boston University. “We’re not necessarily envious but enamored by that—the fact that someone can pull that off.”
Trump uses his business success as proof of his political credentials. Whether that’s an appropriate gauge is debatable, but he is a successful creator in the business world and many voters feel that there’s nothing he can’t conquer. “As a brand, the fact that he has success at such a high level, people probably think that that can translate into any endeavor that he takes on,” says Tor Myhren, worldwide chief creative officer of the ad agency Grey. “That’s very attractive to people.”
On the other hand, the original Trump brand—the name that adorns hotels, luxurious condos, books, cologne—has taken a major hit in the wake of his presidential campaign. For consumers who make six figures or more, the very people Trump’s businesses depend on, the value of the Trump brand is dropping precipitously. It’s a private company, so the the long-term effects will be difficult to know, but it’s likely to have a significant financial impact, affecting sales, borrowing, and recruiting.
Whether Trump has a job in the White House or keeps his regular, but now diminished gig, the take away for political candidates (and most other brands) is clear: Dominate social media. “Understand and engage your voter target, (even if it means you don’t appeal to everyone). Define a motivating benefit that solves a problem. Focus on just a few simple, concrete reasons to believe. Act in a distinctive and consistent way. Embrace unique policies other candidates won’t.” (Fortune, January 6, 2016)