What’s Driving Trump’s Amazing Appeal with American Voters?
Whether you are for or against Donald Trump becoming President of the United States, it is undeniable that he is re-defining what voters in America want from their politicians. As with all marketing, to understand the Trump brand phenomenon we must first understand the consumer – or in this case, the voter. Only then can we understand how unique Trump’s attributes are and why they have become so meaningful and appealing to certain voters.
Who’s the target?
Donald Trump isn’t for everyone. Love him or hate him, there’s little doubt that he’s quite polarizing in his appeal. Depending on what media and research sources you pay attention to, Trump is finding favor with 20‒30% of voters in America. Even though he is running as a Republican candidate, his appeal only skews Republican; it actually crosses party lines to include some Democrats and a lot more independent voters – many of whom had previously given up on the political process and had opted out of voting in recent elections. The media tends to focus on demographic factors in explaining that Trump supporters are typically less educated, blue collar, and white. And, although that is partially true, his supporters go beyond conforming to such simplistic demographic parameters. Psychographic factors (shared values and attitudes) better reveal and explain who Trump’s supporters are. Political insiders are astonished that Trump can be so aggressive and arrogant about his own capabilities while offering few details on exactly how he intends to get all the things he’s promising done. But the reason he can successfully do this has a lot to do with the how his supporters view themselves and their role in society. Geert Hofstede is a well-respected social psychologist who developed a cultural dimensions theory that measures personality orientations in a society such as Power Distance Relationships, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, and Masculinity. Understanding the Power Distance perspective illustrates that Trump’s supporters believe and expect that power is distributed unequally. This is why they are so enamored with Trump and hope that he will assert that power to their benefit. They will loyally follow a patriarchal figure who is naturally entitled to decide what should be done and what is right or wrong. In return for their loyalty, they expect this powerful figure to protect and take care of them – a core component of the Trump proposition.
These core Trump supporters also have a high degree of Uncertainty Avoidance. Change is not only unwelcome in their world, it often disturbs their perspective of to how things ought to be. They don’t fully understand what drives change, but inherently believe that it is bad for them and all that they hold dear, i.e., their view of the world and their role in it. Although America finally elected a black president in 2008, has approved same sex marriages, and has made great strides toward gender equality, it is a mistake to think that this has meant an end to racism and sexism for a significant portion of the US population. You don’t have to scratch too deep to reveal the biases and prejudices among many of Trump’s strongest supporters. So many changes over a relatively short period of time has created an anxiety within this psychographic segment, an anxiety to which Trump is appealing with everything he says and does. A tragic side-effect of marketing to this fear and anxiety is that in many instances it has created a situation whereby some troubled individuals feel emboldened to take aggressive action against immigrants, the homeless, LGBT community, or any group that they resent and often fear.
The Trump Brand Architecture
There are many brand architecture models out there. We developed a branding model several years ago called a Motivational Hierarchy that establishes the benefit pillars of a brand, prioritizes those benefits according to motivational power from cost of entry attributes to differentiated benefits, and then culminates in a crucial emotional experience for the brand. Strong brands typically have between 3 and 4 brand pillars. For Coca-Cola, they are Optimism, Authenticity, and Inclusivity. For Apple, they are Individualism, Elegance, and Creativity. The Trump brand pillars are that he is Honest, A Winner, and Protective. Never mind whether he can really deliver on these three pillars; we’ll get to that later. For now it is important to identify and define the key benefit pillars of his brand promise.
What drives the appeal of each pillar goes back to what we know about his target voters. As with all brands, consumers (i.e., voters) compare and contrast different brands based on what they require or want from the category (in this case, politicians), and then consciously or unconsciously connect that expectation to something that plays to a fear, hope, desire, or anxiety they feel in their everyday lives. These we call tension points. It is important to see the Trump brand through the eyes and feelings of his supporters, rather than relative to our own values and beliefs – most of us are not Trump’s target.
The three benefit pillars grow in motivational power as they build on top of what is minimally required to capture support of the target voters (cost-of-entry benefits) and then become differentiated with benefits that only Trump can deliver, or at least promises to deliver. All three benefit pillars culminate in a brand experience that Trump has repeated over and over again as his slogan – ‘Make America Great Again’. It is not only important how the benefits build on top of each other from the bottom up – driven by tension points and category needs – it is crucial that each brand pillar supports the others to create a powerful shared experience. As we have seen, Trump has done an exceptional job in this regard.
The ‘Honest’ brand pillar touches an important tension point with all voters because there is so much mistrust of the political world. What hits a chord with Trump’s supporters is that he uses harsher language and makes statements that other politicians wouldn’t normally make. His supporters often explain that he isn’t politically correct but rather says what all of us are thinking but are afraid to say. Trump certainly isn’t mimicking the thoughts of all voters in the United States (or even a majority) with his charged comments about race, gender, and other controversial topics, but he is closely aligned with the attitudes and beliefs of his supporters. Even then, there are probably few supporters who completely agree with everything he says, but he only has to connect to a couple of their beliefs in these sensitive areas to get credit for ‘telling it like it really is’ and thereby drive the ‘Honest’ brand pillar upwards.
Part of Trump’s larger-than-life appeal is that he tends to exaggerate his experience and successes. The vulnerability would be if he were to extend himself well beyond mere exaggeration to being downright untruthful on two or more occasions; this would begin to undermine this ‘Honest’ brand pillar. Anything less would simply be explained by supporters as part of being ‘A Winner’ (pillar #2), something that can naturally cross into over-confidence, which they would view as forgivable.
The ‘A Winner’ pillar is easily supported by the success Trump has attained monetarily, something he fully understands and is always quick to point out – ‘I’m really rich.’ What Trump has managed to do with his brand is to promote the belief that because they are supporting ‘A Winner’ who is fighting for them and is on their side, his supporters, too, can become winners. This touches on a very important tension point for his target audience. His statements that he is the smartest and most successful person ever across such a wide range of topics is sometimes taken as a little over the top, even by his supporters. But he gets away with it because they believe all winners really think like that and say that Trump is just being honest about it. He’s not worrying about how it may sound. And he’s not worrying about being polite or politically correct as his supporters are quick to point out – ‘He’s just stating the obvious.’ So the first pillar (‘Honest’) is supported by the second pillar (‘A Winner’) and vice versa.
The vulnerability with the ‘A Winner’ pillar is that it is a two-edged sword. As he continues to win primaries Trump demonstrates that he is indeed ‘A Winner’. But if he were to begin lose the primaries, it would immediately undermine this position at a time with his brand needs it most. Trump clearly understands this, which is why he was so quick to claim fraud by a competitor as the reason for his second-place finish in Iowa. Non-supporters were doubtful of these claims, but supporters wanted to believe that their brand was unfairly attacked and therefore these fraud claims and being taken advantage of by the ‘establishment’ only served to strengthen their brand choice.
The final Trump brand pillar is about being ‘Protective’, the relentless defender of the common man. This pillar is typical of a lot of political brands that appeal to significant segments of the population that believe that they have been left out and taken advantage of while others have gained at their expense. Trump’s supporters feel increasingly vulnerable to a series of rapid changes that have upset the way they want things to be – like the way life used to be. Outsiders coming in to their world with a religion they don’t understand, gender equality, racial integration, same sex marriage, all play into their fears about a world they don’t understand, much less agree with. Likewise they are very uncomfortable with the growing problem of drugs penetrating into their local communities, something they feel is easier to blame on the supply side of the equation rather than on the demand side. Trump’s pledge to build a wall to protect them from threats that they consider to be a ‘clear and present danger’ hits a very powerful tension point for them – personal security.
This ‘Protective’ pillar of the Trump brand is quite secure during the campaign because anything that happens as a threat or a direct attack reinforces Trump’s claim that he will not allow it to happen when he is President. The vulnerability would only surface after he had become President and international tensions escalated or there were attacks and/or conflicts as a direct result of his actions as President.
The Crucial Emotional Experience for Trump expertly builds upon and integrates it with the complementary pillars of his brand using the statement he repeats over and over again emphasizing the last word to make it clear that the world view of his supporters will be restored if he is elected President of the United States: ‘We are going to make America Great…Again.’
So, what makes a brand successful over the long term?
Any good strategy, especially a brand strategy, must be Meaningful, Deliverable, and Defendable. For all of the reasons mentioned relative to the psychographics (values and beliefs) of his core supporters, Trump’s brand is absolutely meaningful to these people. It is also highly defendable because for a competitor or media pundit to attack it plays into Trump’s brand strength. Supporters think: because he is fighting against all enemies (real and imagined) for me, any attack on Trump is an attack on me and on my deeply held beliefs. This defense of Trump is so strong that even he admitted that he could probably shoot someone in the middle of New York City’s 5th Avenue and his supporters would still stick with him. He’s right about that, but he is still missing one important ingredient in the must-have triumvirate of Meaningful, Deliverable, and Defendable that is required for a truly successful brand. Trump’s supporters have yet to figure out that Trump’s brand promise is fundamentally undeliverable. Is it really possible, or even practical that Trump could deliver on his bold promises if he becomes President, or if he even intends to do so? This remains an open question for a lot of people.
As marketers, we know that nothing guarantees a harder and more certain fall than over promising and under delivering on a brand promise. It is bad marketing. It falls into the same category as trying to sell swamp land as beach-front property or miracle weight loss pills that never work. It always ends badly with disgruntled consumers who feel lied to and betrayed.
Donald Trump likes to portray himself as a highly successful business leader – a winner. To people who often don’t really know what this entails on such as scale as what Trump has attained, that claim may be believable – after all, he had a successful television show that supposedly showcased his business acumen. But the reality behind the reality show is that he is more successful as a speculator and a showman than as a business leader who creates and sustains customer value. The failed businesses of Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump – The Game, Trump Magazine, Trump Casinos, Trump Steaks, or Trump Mortgage Company all testify to his inability to create sustainable customer value. But don’t confuse his supporters with the facts – it’s an emotional connection that’s driving his brand now. His supporters often define a successful business person as someone who takes great risks as though the amount of risk they take is proportionate to their success. It’s an interesting perspective and one that certainly fits the Trump persona. However, a truly successful business person consistently creates meaningful customer value that is deliverable and defendable, thereby maintaining sustainable value over time for their customers, their employees, their shareholders, and the community. No question that a good business person often has to accept risks and sometimes needs to take bold action and learn how to thrive in uncertainty, but they understand that the greatest risk of all is to promise your customer more than you can deliver.
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Having 20+ years of research experience, I have realized that getting insights with research was only one part of the equation. What all the brands are looking for is not only insights but also what to do to with them and how to implement. Research is great to identify and then reach the right people as long as you ask the right questions or it will not deliver. Insights from the research have to be actionable and how to take action on them is crucial. I believe that marketers do not need to reinvent marketing, just rethink how they do it.