Donald J. Trump did not win the 2016 Presidential election by knowing how to play the game of politics better than seasoned politicians. He changed the game to marketing where he is good enough to “sell snow to an Eskimo”. Here’s a look through the lens of business marketing at how Donald J. Trump won the 2016 Presidential election.
In the world of product marketing, there are no political rallies. There are focus groups and lots of them. They usually consist of small groups in windowless rooms with lots of electronics to collect immediate feedback from the participants. Thinking outside the box, a political rally could function as a focus group without changing its size or location. Rather than getting individual feedback from participants, simply listening for the variations in the roar of the crowd could provide insights into what was selling. I suspect Trump did this. He’d dish out a rabble rousing remark and pause to see how big a reaction he’d get. He’d try another inflammatory comment and compare reactions. Over many rallies in many states, he learned what to say to define his brand and to excite those who were eagerly buying what he was selling.
Conventional wisdom expects a large percentage of campaign spending to be spent on TV advertising. It’s an opportunity to expose a more human side of the candidate and to portray opponents in a negative light. Product marketing sees most political TV ads as push tactics which usually generates lots of pushback. Pull tactics generate word-of-mouth advertising which is comes from a familiar, trusted source. Trump did almost no TV advertising for many months in the run-up to the General Election. Yet he was generating huge amounts of buzz. He created demand for his brand without hard selling it. He got people talking among themselves while provoking the the print journalists and TV talk shows to fuss about his brand of politics.
Neither commercial or industrial products get into big debates on a stage full of other candidates. If a new product stands out from the crowd, it gets press coverage and product reviews online and in magazines. With enough exposure, the product becomes a “household name”. Trump figured out the way to standout in that crowd of Republican candidates was to be as controversial as possible. He defied convention at every event. As he said: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity — all publicity is good publicity”. He stole the spotlight daily for months.
Conventional campaigning runs on getting a bump in poll numbers after an event, TV appearance or the party’s national convention. Pollsters survey voters by asking for them to rank issues from most important to least important. Product marketing does not track fluctuations in customer opinions, preferences and reactions. Marketing campaigns follow sales numbers by territory. Trump said he didn’t trust the polling numbers to show the momentum he was building or the emotions he was arousing. He was counting votes he could rely on, not movement on issues.
During a political campaign, maps get repeatedly drawn and revised. They show the changing number of red and blue states, the size of urban and rural regions, or the breakdown of voting by district from a previous election. The very diverse population gets mapped into homogenous territories. Product marketing positions a brand among other products in its market space of product attributes - not a geographic space of districts. Trump positioned himself in the market for the presidency as a Washington outsider who could bring about changes that insiders could never accomplish. He found unmet demand for change that neither batch of campaign promises had fulfilled. He not only voiced his distinctiveness, he walked the talk. He embodied be the change that could bring change to Washington. He acted unconventionally and differentiated himself from conventional candidates by his antics.
Now that Trump is the POTUS, he is out of his element. His practiced marketing tactics look deceitful, controlling and incompetent under the glare of our expectations for presidential leadership. Bad publicity is really bad now, no longer good for brand visibility, word of mouth advertising or pull strategies like it was during the campaign. Being a Washington outsider looks like a disadvantage when trying to significant changes in how a polarized Congress functions. He was a game changer during the election. Now his game is getting changed.