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What Did the Trump Era Teach Us About Marketing

What Did the Trump Era Teach Us About Marketing

Home Blog Digital Marketing What Did the Trump Era Teach Us About Marketing

Every Strong Brand is Build on an Insight

Whether you hate him, or you love him, Donald Trump is an amazing marketer. Throughout his life he has crafted and redrafted a brand without parallel.

This is not a story about politics, but uses it as a backdrop to highlight some incredible salient points about marketing, and how it can motivate behavior from good to bad.

To do this, we have to review a few concepts that are important to tell the story. 

Digital marketing campaign

Table of Contents:

What’s an Insight

First, we need to define an insight. To do that, we need to talk about an audience or target. A tribe is a suitable metaphor for an audience.

A Set of Shared Beliefs is What Holds Tribes Together

Like a tribe, it’s a group of people who share a similar set of identifiable characteristics and beliefs that make them distinct from other tribes.

What glues a tribe together is its shared beliefs. There are a set of beliefs that make you part of the tribe. Others, who do not share those beliefs, are by definition not members. The most powerful insights tap into that core belief.

An Insight Appeals to Those Shared Beliefs

Thus, an insight appeals directly to an audience’s emotional needs and beliefs. When articulated, it gets an immediate emotional response. Some call this a dog whistle. 

Those who are part of the audience immediately know you are one of them and speak directly to them. For those outside, it doesn’t even register.

The Pitch or Benefit Leverages the Insight to Solve the Problem

Here is where the insight is really powerful. Blowing the insight dog whistle will get your intended audience’s attention.

Once you have their attention and you legitimize the need, you go in with pitch. It is a simple solution that solves their problem. It offers a means to satisfy a need or remove a fear.

Now that we have covered a few of the important definitions, we can go back to what we’ve experienced in US politics over the past four years.

Who is Trump’s Audience?

Many have debated this for years. Was it economics? Education? Religion? Racism? I don’t think it is a simple answer because, while it has some demographic characteristics, demographics alone do not explain it.

As Psychology Today points out, they tie to a set of core beliefs. Some are economic. Some are cultural. Some are based on relative decline. However, all seem to gel around the idea of change. 

In the past 20 to 30 years, the American culture has experienced sweeping changes. The information revolution changed how we communicate and make money. The influx of immigration has changed the ethnic mix of the country. The more tolerant views on what some call moral issues.

For some, these changes were welcome and embraced. For those in Trump’s audience, I hypothesize that they see those changes as a threat to their way of life and their perceived moral order.

What was Trump’s Insight?

Even if you disagree with my hypothesis, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is true. If it is, what is the glue holding this audience together? It is the fear of the “them”, those who embraced or embody the change. Those who they perceive are causing the change that is ‘taking away’ their world.

What is His Pitch?

What he has done brilliantly, starting with ‘Birtherism’, one might even say going all the way back to the “Central Park 5”, is to hone his message and tap into this fear: “It’s not you. It’s them. It’s a lie. The world isn’t changing. It’s being stolen by them. I’m your champion. I’m going to fight to stop them and keep you safe.”

The “them” could be anyone, the media, the Muslims, the immigrants, the educated elite.

Source: Donald Trump’s Twitter (which has since been removed, but documented in this article)

Take your pick, and he has. As long as it plays into the fear and offers some solution that only he can solve, it is brilliant marketing.

To this audience, the world they are experiencing or seeing creates cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the stress felt when someone holds beliefs that are contradictory to his or her experience.

Why is it Effective?

Cognitive dissonance is stressful. It causes you to revisit your beliefs and maybe your identity, if your identity is tied to those beliefs.

Trump’s pitch is effective because it offers his audience a means to relieve this dissonance. It’s much easier to dismiss something as fiction than to confront the stress of accepting a fact when a simple, even if implausible, solution is believed to exist.

Why is it Resilient?

Facts and evidence will not sway any strong emotional insight. They can be easily dismissed as phony and false if they contradict the insight in question.

Denying inconvenient and incongruent facts reinforces a bubble that keeps the insight alive. If something is proclaimed loud enough by people the audience trusts, and it’s consistent with the insight, it becomes perceived as truth.

When Does It Fail?

A powerful insight is no longer effective when the audience realizes the solution offered by the pitch is failing to get the results promised. 

As long as they see the results promised, the insight holds. So, court packing was important to the maintenance of Trump’s insight, as was the building of the wall, and so many others. 

An Insight Fails When It Causes Cognitive Dissonance

The Capitol riots were just about the worst thing to happen. Those powerful images created cognitive dissonance in the audience. It made them question who they are. Are we these people? 

If the audience holds the belief that they are not violent and that they don’t attack the police, these images pop the bubble. Once the bubble pops, the whole thing unravels.

Trump Example

We can see the results now. Claims that the “election was stolen” and of “massive voter fraud” are still believed by some, but appears to have a lesser impact as it once did. In addition, this audience faced more dissonance when the predicted apocalypse failed to occur. Trump’s brand suffered a lot of damage from the impact of the Capitol event.

Cambridge Analytica & Facebook

This is an older example, but still relevant. In 2016, the story broke about how an obscure data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, was able to use raw Facebook profile data to target users with almost laser-like precision.
This scandal burst the ‘bubble’ that many consumers held that social media companies use of their personal information was harmless, turning many internet users against Facebook. “How Cambridge Analytica Sparked the Great Privacy Awakening” published by Wired explains this effect in great detail.

How is this Relevant to us as Marketers?

First, we need to realize the power of an insight is a double-edged sword. Like a sword, it is simply a tool, it is up to us to be ethical about how we use it.

How to Find an Insight?

Before the advent of social media, marketers used to spend exorbitant amounts of money conducting market research from focus groups to ethnographic studies. This used to take six months to a year to conduct.

Social listening has revolutionized how we look to find insights. Sentiment analysis is a powerful tool in understanding the emotions surrounding a given topic, a feature offered by Mention. The key point here is what used to take months, now can be done in days.

How These Techniques are Used in Our Daily Lives

If you don’t think that this affects you, I hate to tell you that it probably already has. However, this is not always a bad thing and can sometimes have positive outcomes.

Why do Facebook or Instagram exist? They exist and have been so successful because they tap into the basic human need to communicate and feel part of a community. 

Why do we dismiss the data that shows their algorithm can be and have been used to cause harm or that we, Joe Public, have been complicit in the spread of misinformation? 

These revelations have not yet created a large enough cognitive dissonance to loosen its grip. It has for some, and if left unchecked, has the power to create more. 

They still deliver the goods. I can still instantly communicate and get responses. I can still believe that my actions aren’t causing any harm.

Therefore, I would argue that all the “privacy” measures are not because of the fear of regulation, but to reduce the chance for this dissonance to take hold.

Do These Techniques Always Lead to a Negative Outcome?

No. For the vast majority of times, they are perfectly harmless, and some can actually be beneficial, depending on your point of view. Here are two extremely strong insight based campaigns that show the insights can inspire, too.

AlwaysⓇ – Like a Girl

This campaign leverages the insight that “like a girl” is an insult. It’s pretty powerful, and hits on an important insight that young girls are being shamed at an early age.

We Believe: Gillette the Best a Man Can Get

They link this insight to our societal definition of manhood and question: is this the best we can be?

How Not to Lose Your Insight?

As we demonstrated in both the Trump and Facebook examples, an insight or belief can be lost in an instant. Insights can seem so resilient. They have survived other challenges. Therefore, it is so easy to get lulled into complacency, which can have deadly consequences.

Reputation management is key. All it can take is one spark to destroy your brand. The problem is it can be difficult to predict which spark will do it. Therefore, the best practice is to treat each spark as if it had the potential to be the “one”. 

This doesn’t mean over-reacting to each blip, but it does mean it is best practice to have reputation management software in place to track the chatter in real time. It also means having a crisis management team in place with protocols in place in case of an emergency. 

The best time to plan for a crisis is when one isn’t happening. You are emotionally calm and detached. Therefore, emotional decision-making is lessened. With fewer emotions involved, you can build contingency plans without the added stressors of a real crisis.

In my opinion, the story got ahead of both Trump and Facebook precisely because they failed to act soon enough. They developed a plan on the fly, which left them vulnerable. They were reacting rather than controlling the story. This is when you are at the greatest risk of permanent damage.

Digital marketing campaign


I would like to leave you with the following 4 points:

  1. Insights are powerful: They are like a dog whistle, when you blow on it, your audience knows, and you have their attention. Social listening is the best way to find these insights.
  2. They have the power to change behavior: The insights themselves are tools. It’s how they are used that can lead to desirable or undesirable outcomes  
  3. They are resilient, and they will resist change/dismiss facts, until something significant happens that calls into question their beliefs. 
  4. However, they can disappear in what might seem like an instant if crisis management is not in place to get ahead of a damaging story. Reputational monitoring is key to early detection.
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Brian Cairns

Over 20 years of business experience in marketing at P&G, J&J, and Pfizer. Plus 8 years as a successful entrepreneur. Funding and selling one company before starting ProStrategix Consulting®. Brian leads the strategy projects, pulling in support from his large network of freelance support.

Guest Blogger @Mention