Sunday, June 19, 2016
“There’s a Republican Born Every Minute” – P.T. Trump
Steve is back with his assessment of the marketing talents of Donald Trump.
Much has been made this election cycle of Donald Trump’s supposed inherent genius as a marketer… of the brand “Trump,” and of his highly unconventional yet uncontestably successful campaign to win the Republican Presidential nomination. The core premise is that in lieu of a standard campaign based on television advertising and grassroots organization, Trump has brilliantly manipulated the media to command constant saturation coverage, and has boldly exploited social media to create an unmediated, unfiltered personal broadcasting network to his faithful.
Indeed, no one can argue his success… thus far.
However, in these immensely tumultuous recent days in which Trump slandered an exceptionally respected and qualified Federal judge, hijacked Orlando’s blood-drenched AK-47 Groundhog Day to marvel at his own supposed clairvoyance, and then exponentially expanded his war on Islam, the question of Trump’s alleged marketing genius needs to be re-examined.
Trump’s “marketing program” thus far has had one legitimate marketing home run: an insight that led to his running the table to capture the Republican nomination.
But under closer scrutiny, this alleged marketing wizardry appears to be more Barnum than Apple. Indeed, for those unflinching Clinton haters who recently boarded the Trump bus simply because no one else was still heading for Mohegan Sun, it will be painful to realize that Trump is actually not very good at the one thing he is supposedly very good at. But what did P.T. Barnum allegedly say? Something like “there’s a Republican born every minute.” Let’s start by giving him – in all fairness -- his due for decimating 16 dwarves to win the Republican nomination for President. At the core of that campaign was a superior insight into the target; a huge triumph of marketing.
Marketers know that that the secret to becoming the dominant brand in a category is to figure out what is most important to the most people, and then deliver it better than anyone else. Generations of product managers at Proctor and Gamble repeat the mantra that Tide cleans best. No matter how many marketing managers come and go at Visa, the brand is always “everywhere you want to be.” If you stand for what is most important to the most people, your competitors are left to compete for smaller market segments and stake their brands to benefits of lesser importance.
Whether by intuition or analysis it matters not; Donald Trump took this logic to a Republican Party had ruptured into three distinct tribes:
1. The largest was the “anti-Washington” tribe that hated ineffectual and disingenuous Republican leaders as much as they loathed Democrats. This is where Donald Trump put all his marbles, and his message of anger at the ineffectuality of government resonated with the largest segment of the party. For a marketer, that’s just determining what is most important to the most people, and proving that you do it better than anyone else.
2. The next largest was the “Christian doctrinaire tribe” that cared only about Christian faith and conservative ideological purity. Ted Cruz placed his wager here, with the second largest group, and -- no shock to a marketer -- he came in second.
3. The big surprise of the primary season was that the “centrist” republicans had actually become the smallest group, all but disappearing in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat. People kept expecting centrists to settle on one of Bush, Rubio, Christie, or Kasich, and that the winner of the centrist battle would rapidly jump to 40%-50% of the polls. The flaw in that logic was that the “centrist” vote was never more that 15% of the Party. It was not that Bush lost because of “low energy” or that Rubio lost because he was “little Marco.” They lost because their message as “centrists” (and believe me, we use that term relatively) was out of touch with the new mainstream of the party. There were never going to be enough “centrists” to overtake the “anti-Washington” or the “Christian doctrinaire” segments.
Score that one as a marketing triumph for The Donald: he identified the largest “tribe” in the deeply fractured Republican Party. His contempt for “political correctness,” for the incompetence and gridlock of Washington politicians, and for the Federal government’s failure to defend American jobs against illegal immigration and questionable trade practices gave him a platform for a campaign that deeply resonated with the angry tribe that felt ignored, betrayed, and demeaned by Washington. He rode the correct identification of the target audience all the way to the nomination.
However, the weeks since Donald Trump secured the nomination have oscillated between merely “bad” to downright nightmarish for Team Orange Hair. Many people were characterizing his assault on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a federal district judge in the Southern District of California, as a “tipping point” in a broad groundswell of Republican backlash against Trump. And that was before his despicable reaction to the Orlando tragedy.
From a marketing perspective, the evidence is gradually mounting that Donald Trump may have had the one very smart initial strategic insight, but is now being victimized by his own failings as a marketer. Ah, Shakespeare and thy tragic flaws.
Let’s review a number of the decisions Trump has made in light of general accepted marketing “best practices,” and take a measure of how Trump has started shooting himself in the foot and his aim is now rapidly heading north.
1. Failure to understand that his target market has changed.
As smart as Trump may have been to identify the correct tribe within the Republican Party, he has totally failed to grasp that as the primary season changes into the general election, the target changes. In the general election, the candidates must do all in their power to (1) continue to galvanize their loyal base so that follower will turn out and vote, and (2) they must expand their appeal to compete successfully for the “undecided” voters who often determine who wins and who loses.
As we turn to the general election, it is no longer a question of what the most Republicans want, or even – frankly – what most Americans want. The candidates must address the question of what the “undecided” voters want. To be even more precise still, the question is now “what do undecided voters in the key swing states want?”
It’s a mistake to think that undecided voters in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are identical to the rabid conservative under-educated rural white voters around whom Trump built his campaign. And yet that appears to be his current assumption.
Since securing the nomination, Donald Trump has given little indication that his general election campaign will vary from his primary campaign. If anything, he has seized opportunities to become more emphatic about the most incendiary messages of his primary campaign: racially-charged rhetoric aimed at Hispanics, and an ever-expanding frame for his personal jihad against Islam.
2. Focusing on awareness when he does not have an awareness problem.
In my years running an advertising agency, there was no shortage of clients who came to me with a very thorny problem: their product enjoyed very high awareness, but its reputation was weak or eroded. Very rarely would I encounter the delightful inverse: an outstanding product that simply needed to become a more familiar brand name. The latter can be addressed largely through generating awareness. The former must be addressed by changing perceptions… a much tougher task.
Donald Trump is running his campaign as if his core problem is simple awareness. He says outrageous things with the full intent of dominating the news cycle; there is not a microphone he won’t grab, not a tweet he won’t bleat, not a sound he won’t byte. And every time he does, he repeats versions of the same ideas he used in the primaries.
Now, if you are comfortably ahead by five points in the polls, go for it: repeat your winners all day long. But if most polls show you trailing your rival, a smart marketer knows that mere repetition is not going to change the game. If you know that your disapproval rating is higher than your opponent’s, you might want to try to change perception rather than simply beat the same drum ever louder.
Indeed, this moment in time – nomination won, convention still weeks away – would be an ideal time for him to step back, rethink, and recalibrate his message for the entirely new marketing challenge that lies ahead. He is not doing this, and that is not smart marketing.
3. It’s time to beat a hasty retweet.
Here’s a fascinating fact: Donald Trump’s campaign recently announced that his total social media following on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram now exceeds twenty million people. Want some context for that number? It happens to be the exact number of Walter Cronkite’s peak audience on the CBS Evening News.
Yes, the Donald Trump Personal Broadcasting Network now has the exact same reach as the most trusted newsman of all time had at his peak of popularity. This fact would make me deeply concerned if I was convinced Trump knew how to use it. But the problem is that Twitter is a fickle and deeply ironic medium. And it sure is not the CBS Evening News.
First and foremost: Donald Trump’s Twitter following are the people who already buy in. They are his most loyal followers. So Donald Trump is spending all day long tweeting to people who are already committed to voting for him. There is no question that this has value for that all important task of galvanizing your supporters to get out and vote.
But at this point, that is the smaller of Trump’s marketing problems. At just the moment when he should be reaching out to those undecided people in crucial swing states, he is feverishly key-stroking his twitter feed to climax. He needs to do more than master the base, no matter how much pleasure it gives him.
Worse still -- and here is where the irony comes in – the only of Donald Trump’s tweets that undecided voters see are the most heinous, awful ones that are plastered all over the mainstream media when Trump is at this most evil. Think about it. The only tweets centrist voters read is when CNN broadcasts Trump’s verbal pillages of Carly Fiorina, his horrific abuse of Heidi Cruz, his steady drumbeat of Islamophobia, or his bizarre moment of self-congratulations to mark the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.
Twitter simply reinforces the polarization of the electorate. His followers are happy to follow his 24/7 master-race-baiting, Islam-hating, and Benghazi-Gating, but all the left-leaning media needs to do is broadcast just one horrific tweet a week in full view of the undecided voters, and Donald’s twitter feed becomes his own worst enemy.
Had Donald Trump indulged in some well-designed and executed market research on his current standing to the general population (another rather basic marketing practice), he might have found that many undecided voters believe that he has certain strengths but is thin on substance and his knowledge of a complex world. If people are concerned that you are a lightweight on substance, perhaps you should not make your primary medium the one that limits your communication to 144 characters. Sure, it is easier to write twenty words with no discernable syntax, punctuation, or factual support, but those are probably the reasons why hostage negotiations and cancer treatment protocols are rarely conveyed on Twitter feeds.
And, indeed, when the timing of the candidate’s communications initiatives appears to be motivated by something akin to spontaneous combustion, Twitter is not your friend. Premature twit-aculation is when you send a tweet out too quickly in an ill-considered, out-of-control rush of anger. Twitter could make good money offering a ten-second delay option in posts so that people with anger-management issues could force themselves to take a moment of reflection prior to publication. At just the moment when Donald Trump would benefit from appearing thoughtful, measured, and contemplative, he is acting like a trailer for “Angry Tweets, The Movie.”
But, in the end, anger and rage are central to Trump’s candidacy; therefore they are central to his marketing, and, in turn, to his communication on Twitter. Here’s an interest take on that:
“Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.” – Joseph Goebbels, on the purpose of propaganda.
(And, yes, in case you are curious... that quote and attribution are precisely 144 characters.)
4. Great marketers understand the importance of their sales force and distribution.
The smartest marketers don’t walk around acting like the sales force is somewhere below them on the intellectual food chain, and they don’t think the distribution channel is a necessary evil. Savvy marketers actively market to these vital constituencies every bit as they market to the consumer. They want the sales force to be pumped up, to know the product story, to have the right incentives, and to feel that marketing is providing the right support.
In this little fable, the “sales force” is the rank and file of Republican Party elected officials, and the “distribution system” is the network of state organizations that operate at the grassroots level, finding and getting out the vote.
Donald Trump is taking extraordinary pride at making clear that he can succeed without any of the traditional mechanisms of party politics. Hey, Mr. Speaker of the House, up yours. The rest of you? It’s time to get on board, stick to the script, or shut the hell up.
The point here is not that Donald Trump needs to suddenly abandon the renegade, rogue mentality that took him this far. But it’s probably true that he doesn’t need to go out of his way to make those party loyalists feel like so many eight-track cassettes and used Swiffer refills.
The mutual disdain between the Republican apparatchiks’ and their candidate is now measured somewhere between Michael and Kelly and Kanye and Taylor. To characterize the Republican establishment’s current sentiment as mere “buyer’s remorse” is a minced Preibus-ism; “buyer’s remorse” is what you feel when a better house comes on the market after your closing; not how you’d characterize the discovery that your new split level sits on a sewage-filled sink hole that was created by untreated radioactive waste. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Kelly Ayotte have sold out but they can’t run from Fox microphones fast enough; John Kasich is still refusing to buy in. Each seems genuinely unable to come to grips with dealing with a candidate whose policy and platform are shaped largely by Tourette’s Syndrome. They are turning up their palms, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads – just about anything they can do to convey despair and alienation without actually getting quoted.
At the most fundamental level, the cost of Trump’s disdain for his sales force and distribution channel is that he is now fighting a two-front war. Just as Democrats are seen to be coming together, Trump is taking heavy incoming from his own party… and he is not handling it well.
More than anything else this election cycle, the Republican rank and file wanted an outsider. Donald Trump is so “outside” that he is now paying no attention to any Republican voices, many of whom he views to be as much the enemy as Hillary Clinton. It has been fascinating to watch as Republicans learn that being as “outsider” doesn’t simply mean that Trump won’t listen to the party establishment… he won’t listen to anybody.
5. Doubling down when the message needed to evolve.
Above all, a brilliant marketer nails the message. “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” “When it absolutely, positively has to be there on time.” “Yes, we can.”
Donald Trump has “Let’s Make America Great Again.” It is a fascinating choice, because the key word – “again” -- is so glaringly and unapologetically retro. “Let’s go back in time” may be a good slogan to address to aging undereducated white guys who were last seen on top of the sociological totem pole when Studebaker was battling for market share with Rambler. However, I am not sure how many women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and members of the LGBT community are really keen on bringing back those good old 1950s.
Interestingly, Ronald Reagan never talked about “turning the clock back.” His most famous marketing campaign – “Morning in America” – presented an upbeat, positive, forward-looking view. Indeed, Presidential campaigns inevitably come down to two key themes: the incumbent party talks about “four more years,” and “staying the course;” while the party out of power speaks about the dire need for change. Going backward qualifies as “change,” to be sure… but it is inherently a retreat.
Beyond the campaign theme, Donald Trump has been mangling his message from the very beginning, committing mistakes that now threaten that his campaign will arrive stillborn at the nominating convention. While Trump had correctly identified the largest “tribe” in the Republican Party, he misplayed and overplayed the “message” to that group.
Trump launched his campaign with a ferocious assertion that Mexicans who came to the United States were drug dealers and rapists. The under-educated white males at the core of his base might climax when Trump made racist claims, but charging that Mexico is a nation of sexual predators completely overwhelmed the plausibly legitimate debate about the economics of illegal residents. Had Donald Trump limited his attack on Mexicans and Hispanics to the relatively narrow issue of whether or not undocumented aliens currently in the United States usurp jobs that tax-paying American citizens should have, he might have been perceived as simply a tough businessman forcing a public dialog on an uncomfortable but legitimate debate.
Two weeks ago, his claim that a federal judges of Hispanic descent could not be impartial in cases involving Trump University was labeled by the highest ranking Republican in the country as “the textbook definition of racism.” Through his racial attack on the judge, he dramatically elevated public awareness that one of his own companies was currently in litigation for fraudulent business practices. There is no plausible argument that a marketing genius was behind this projectile tantrum.
Trade policy? A perfectly legitimate issue; indeed, Bernie Sanders inflicted real damage on Hillary Clinton with this exact line of attack. Had Donald Trump limited his commentary on U.S. trade policy to the narrow question of whether China’s monetary policies create a non-level playing field for U.S. companies, he might be viewed as an astute, experienced businessman bringing real-world experience to bear on government policy. Instead, Trump has chosen to center this discussion on “the stupidity of our leaders,” their “incredibly stupid deals,” and the unsupportable contention that a 45% tariff on Chinese goods will somehow magically bring manufacturing jobs back.
Literally hours after the last AK-47 bullets sprayed death in an Orlando nightclub, Trump politicized the tragedy and used the occasion to double down on his Muslim ban, contending that the killer was from Afghanistan. In truth, the murderer was an American citizen born a few miles from Trump Tower.
In case after case after case, Trump could not be bothered to do the hard work of providing factual evidence for his contentions; opting in each case to focus on an emotionally charged appeal to xenophobic instincts and fears.
There will be some that allege that this is genius marketing; that he elevated each issue into an emotionally charged threat that transformed his followers into zealots, passionately committed to his cause. They believe that Donald Trump has somehow channeled Donald Draper of Mad Men fame, and is now expertly practicing the darkest art of manipulation, a shaman puncturing the taboos that served as containment walls for the dormant racism and wild xenophobia of the less educated and malleable.
Those who think he is a genius marketer would have you think that Donald Trump is living the life and saying the things that down-on-their luck white guys would be living and saying if only they had ten billion bucks. And that the allure of this fantasy – with its give-the-man-the-finger swagger – mesmerizes the weak-minded in the manner of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s mind games with Imperial Storm Troopers outside the bar on Tatooine.
The problem is that Star Wars was a movie, not a Presidential campaign, and undecided votes are not Imperial Storm Troopers. The math is becoming clear: there are not enough Imperial Storm Troopers to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The theory that Donald Trump is a marketing genius is a fantasy.
The emerging reality is that Donald Trump is a one-trick pony; a faker whose default mechanism is set to outrage, a man who radically dumbs down the problems of a complex world in order to create the impression that he can solve them. If this is marketing, it is of an ilk that Abraham Lincoln noted is only effective on “some of the people, some of the time.”
No, friends, far from brilliant marketing, there’s enough self-destructive behavior in evidence to cause one to reconsider the theory that has been kicking about for months -- that he actually does not want to be President. That he, as a marketer, simply enjoys the “campaign.” That simply being the Republican candidate for President will dramatically enhance his brand. That, as a supreme narcissist, he is playing a game of chicken in which he wants to sustain the idolatry as long as possible and jump away just in time to dodge the responsibility.
And when he loses, he will find some reason to say he was cheated, and true to form, he will sue Hillary Clinton, attempting to create the impression that he wanted the presidency, but that “Crooked Hillary” robbed it from him.
All of it, taken together, makes me feel a bit bad for all the Imperial Storm Troopers who fill his arena. In living to stroke Trump’s ego, they are the people who inspired the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
What about you, Mr. or Ms. Trump supporter?
Are you a Republican?
Or just a sucker?