This week’s tweet by Ezra Klein that ‘Trump’s taxes show that he’s a great marketer who’s disastrous when left to run anything’ got immediate pushback from marketing professionals, including ‘Not fair to marketers! Marketing is not just about selling, also about taking care of your customers. He’s a great con man, not a marketer.’ It reminded me of 2016, when some marketing professors highlighted Trump as an excellent marketer, while others rated him poorly. For instance, one Harvard Business School prof blogged ‘6 Lessons from Donald Trump’s Winning Marketing Manual’ while another explained ‘5 Lessons I Hope Marketers Don’t Learn from Donald Trump‘.
I find it helpful to think about politicians as service instead of product marketers, and to distinguish voter acquisition and retention, especially now Trump is the incumbent:
Voter acquisition through consistent, call-to-action branding: Marketing theory recommends to consistently communicate your brand (see prof. Kevin Keller) and make it easy for prospective customers to take action (see prof Byron Sharp). In this respect, Trump showed a long-term adherence to authentic branding, being perceived relatively similar in the 2016 primaries to his persona on The Apprentice (Dholakia). Likewise in his presidential campaign, Trump’s consistent slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ was a call-to-arms that evoked passion, purpose and sizzle, while Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ evoked process and policy experience (Quelch). Moreover, Trump matched his message to himself in public and in advertising, “ranting and raving if he chooses, thereby creating the image of a macho politician who is stronger and bolder than any of his opponents” (Newman 2016, p. 790). When Trump did publicly experiment with messages and taglines (e.g., crowdsourcing how to call his opponent at a rally), he consistently used the result #CrookedHillary in later messaging, making it easy for his fans to repeat it. By contrast, none of the negative hashtags for Trump (including #DontheCon) became dominant, and the “grab them” leak did not hurt his chances, as shown in our analysis of how content and platform drove the 2016 election across demographic segments:
Voter retention through delivering on your promises: Prof John Deighton argued in 2016 that the same branding strategies that helped win an election, may backfire when it comes to retention: ‘If you’ve been promising jobs in demolished steel mills or shuttered coal mines, better health insurance with lower taxes, remember the essence of a brand is promise, large promise. Pin your brand to a dream, yes, but have a plan or today’s happy buyers will become tomorrow’s angry owners.’ I agree, but only for ‘search’ and ‘experience’ goods. The quality of search goods is readily apparent before purchase (e.g. from their specs and pics on their Amazon product page), while that of experience goods only when you consume them (or check their purchase-certified reviews). In contrast, you are unsure about the quality of credence goods even AFTER you purchase and consume them. How much did that consultant help our company? Did that vitamin supplement really improve your health? In our case, how do voters evaluate whether Trump managed to ‘drain the swamp’ or ‘make America great again’? These are credence promises, literally ‘Trust me that I did it’ as we as consumers are told we have to for e.g. car repair.
Sure, there were some experience promises: we are still waiting on our ‘better and cheaper healthcare’, let alone on other countries to pay for Trump’s wish list. Still, politicians and campaigns can and do influence voters’ perception of these matters, or at least aim to draw attention away from them. This week’s ‘presidential’ debate was an excellent illustration, with candidates not answering the question, interrupting and getting angry:
Calling all marketers! What do you think about the marketing skills of politicians? And what marketing advice would you have for them?