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How Trump’s brand positioned itself for victory

Without doubt, Trump’s election victory was a shock to most people, especially pollsters, the news media, and those living in urban centers across the country. In some ways, it was a contest of character between the two most unfavorably perceived presidential candidates in history. However, from a branding perspective, the compelling reasons behind each vote was more about what each candidate stood for. And this is what branding is all about–making promises that resonate with people’s intense emotional desires, to connect with them.

To better understand the Trump brand and why it was successful, it is important to appreciate the basics of strategic branding. It starts with really understanding your target audience and especially their emotional profile. The brand promises and personality should respond to these intense feelings, to consistently establish an impression that is focused, relevant, and credible. While Monday morning quarterbacking is always easier, here are some lessons from Trump’s brand success:

1. What motivates voters most – Behind voters’ negative reactions to all the accusations and lying in this election was one dominant emotion–TRUST. The lack of trust in the establishment and our fundamental institutions (e.g., corruption in government, Wall Street, the political system, etc.) was so intense that the choice was ultimately about change. Yes, electing the first woman was a factor, for example, but not nearly as compelling as the fear and frustration caused by growing income inequality, the perception of losing jobs to immigrants and trade deals, and the overall stagnation of Congress. (In fact, Trump was preferred by more white women, 53% versus 43% for Hillary.) In branding, those extreme emotional desires are called the preverbal “sweet spot.”

2. Positioning the Trump brand for this sweet spot – Notwithstanding all the outrageous character flaws and irrational policies of Trump, he constantly reinforced his brand perception as the ultimate outsider or anti-establishment candidate. He was certainly unqualified for office as he had no experience in government, but this became an advantage for many white middle-low income voters who still make up the bulk of population and are more likely to vote. Hillary was viewed as part of the corrupt establishment, both government and Wall Street, compounded by her pervasive distrust, so she became the antipathy for most of these white voters.

3. Emotions overpower rationality – Neuroscientists have proven that emotions are more influential for driving brand decisions and action than rational thinking, especially when the intensity of a critical emotion such as trust is so extreme. The contrast between Hillary and Trump in what they represented for the future could not have been more striking. With her diligent research, detailed plans, and scripted debate performances, Hillary overwhelmed everyone with her professionalism and experience. But that wasn’t what many people wanted. They simply did not care about these rational details as much as a change from the past. Trump was vague, boorish, and repetitive, but he consistently presented himself as a change agent, just what the middle-low income white people wanted.

4. Trends should not be ignored – Tapping the emotional pulse of one’s audience is essential for re-positioning a brand. We are living in a global society today, and evidence of populous trends around the world should have raised a red flag for Democrats. They say problems occur in “threes.” First, Brexit surprised the world, but it showed how fear about losing relevance (and jobs), declining incomes, and strained public services caused by immigrants, drove older white people who vote more often to tip the balance toward Brexit. Only 42% of millennials, who enjoyed the benefits of EU, turned out to vote, compared to 80% of 50 plus voters. Similarly, the turnout for millennials was lower than expected for both presidential candidates. Then the rejection in Colombia of the peace agreement with terrorists also surprised pollsters and the rest of the world. This vote was driven by a lack of trust and feelings of revenge that could not be forgotten among most voters. Similar populous emotions proved to be relevant here and helped carry Trump to victory.

5. Research versus intuition – Market research is essential for developing a successful brand, but it is never a perfect barometer. This unexpected election result demonstrates the fragility of predicting outcomes by pollsters. A critical element of surveying an audience is to ensure that it is representative of the universe. Apparently, many white voters who wanted change but were also alarmed by the vulgarities of Trump, were reluctant to participate in these polling surveys. This should have become a red flag for the Hillary camp.

6. Social media and brand impressions – The shocking statements by Trump provided an unprecedented, ongoing feast for social media. While most of this was negative and truly outrageous, Trump raised his brand awareness and maintained a primary focal point for news stories throughout the campaign. His language was crass, his past experiences insulting, and his political positions vague and over-simplistic. But the net brand impression reminded white voters how he was different–a fresh outsider who provided hope for those looking for a change.

The key for a sustainable, successful brand is whether promises can be delivered over time. Future actions by the Trump government will determine whether this election was an aberration or a constructive improvement for our society, economy, and political system.

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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