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How Putin’s brand inspires Trump

Donald Trump recently praised President Putin of Russia with full admiration as “a leader far more than our leader” and that he “has very strong control” over Russia.  As a forceful, deal-making businessman, Trump can relate to Putin’s leadership style.  Both are authoritative kindred spirits.   But will Putin’s authoritative brand image have any impact on Trump’s political behavior?  And if so, what could we expect from a Trump presidency?  In any case, this comparison also provides a case study of how similar leadership brands may not generate the same results because of a different context and target audience.

As for any brand, perceptions are critical.  The West views Putin as a classic bully, unpredictable and a source of deep and sustained corruption.  He has built a loyal cult around his strongman personality, as a tough, can-do warrior, and even a benevolent father of his people.   His actions during the past few years reinforce this authoritative image – e.g. annexing Crimea, arming the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, turning a vibrant news media into an echo chamber for the Kremlin, minimizing and even eliminating journalists who oppose him, and inserting peacemaking and even military initiatives into regional conflicts like Syria and Israel-Palestine.

While this brand image is very disconcerting in the West, at home he is perceived as a savior, with popularity ratings as high as 82% (albeit via suspicious polling).  His main goal is to restore Russia’s status as a global power not to be ignored, somewhat similar to Trump’s “make America great again”.  By controlling the media, Putin has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to project a brand image of towering strength to the Russian people, demonstrated by his military interventions, blaming their economic woes on Western imposed sanctions (its economy declined by 3.7% last year and is down 1% so far this year), and his threats to “save” Russians living in neighboring countries such as the Ukraine and the Baltic nations.

To fully understand this image contradiction, it is helpful to remember the history, culture and values of the Russian populous.  I have worked in Russia and was both surprised and impressed from research with how passionately patriotic the common Russian people are.   They have always lived under authoritarian rule, and so the Putin dictatorial practices are accepted today by most Russians.  Putin’s popularity is based on a combination of fear, love and submissions.  He is perceived as a strong yet caring leader, who is committed to restoring the pride they felt under Soviet rule.  Corruption and secrecy have always been prevalent, and while not liked, it is broadly tolerated by these stoic people as part of their culture.  In short, there is a surprisingly high level of trust and credibility for Putin, key emotional components for successful branding and developing a bond with a target audience.

Meanwhile there are many similarities in leadership style between Trump and Putin.  Trump has positioned his political brand as an outsider to government, a tough businessman who has accomplished a lot by force and daring.  Just as Putin has disposed of most of the rich oligarchs he could not control and replaced them with loyal business moguls who won’t challenge him, Trump has surrounded himself with loyal family members to run his businesses and campaign (Donald, Ivanka, Eric and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law).  There are other important values and practices which they share:

  • They both have huge egos, and are obsessed with adulation, not ethics or rectitude.
  • They are fixated with poll numbers to reinforce and rationalize their acceptance – ratings which certainly helped propel Trump in the primaries
  • Both will tell an audience whatever they want to hear in any situation, and are not embarrassed about lies and inconsistencies when making grandiose, if not unrealistic promises.
  • They both judge people based on their actions in terms of benefits to them, including fellow Republicans who have not praised Trump.

Notwithstanding the similarities in both leadership brands and actions, the biggest difference lies with the heart of successful branding:  resonating to the market or audience you’re trying to win over.  Whereas Putin leads an authoritative state and has a broad, captive audience, Trump operates in a democracy with a fragmented audience.  His success in the primaries was achieved mainly from a core voter segment of less educated, lower income white Republicans who were sick of typical politicians and distrusted government.  As a result they yearned for a more decisive leader, despite Trump’s outrageous behavior and unconventional brand promises that lacked details and were often full of lies.

While Trump aspires to become a controlling leader like Putin, the presidential election will require a leadership brand that ideally can appeal to a significantly broader audience.  The lesson for successful branding is clear.  Although Trump has positioned his political brand as a government outsider, which admittedly does hold gravity with many, his Putin-like leadership qualities and style will probably alienate too many to ensure victory in November.  As a democracy, the U.S. is a different market from Russia.  The voter/customer and their desires should always be the primary engine that shapes a brand.

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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