I passed by our conference room where a few of my staff were on a conference call with a company showing us how their software keeps track of trends in marketing. One of the examples they used was how Trump was always at the top of trends and the value that pole position allotted him. At the same time the Republican National Convention started out in the way all things seem to start with The Donald: controversy. Melania Trump’s speech sounded strikingly similar to Michelle Obama’s speech from eight years ago.
The question isn’t who should hear “You’re fired!” or be blamed; the question is whether or not it was an intentional move on the part of the Trump campaign.
Let me start out by saying that I am not approaching this from a particular political stance. Politics aside, I believe the speech was intentionally similar. I believe it was part of what has been an unsurpassed marketing effort by the Trump team. From where I sit, I don’t think any media outlet wants Trump to be the next President: not far right leaning Fox News and not far left leaning MSNBC. The media want two things: ratings and to find the silver bullet that will take him down. He knows this and gives them, instead, a bomb without a fuse. The ratings are through the roof. And the controversy provides all the potential of blowing things up without there ever being an explosion. He’s a puppet master.
Think about it. The candidate’s wife’s speech is more of a formality or a tradition than a political statement, so it doesn’t hurt the candidate when it comes to issues. It managed to hold the focus of the media coverage the next day, keeping Trump at the forefront of conversations around the water cooler. And, like it or not, it aligned the Republican family with the Democratic predecessor in regards to things like the dreams of children.
From a marketing standpoint it would have been (or was) a genius move. Minor controversies take center stage and fill time on news outlets that might otherwise have focused on “Never Trump” cries from the convention floor that echoed the same night as the now infamous speech.
Say what you will about his politics, Trump and his campaign team have mastered the art of earned media marketing. Despite the fact that he has yet to spend money on advertising, he remains at the top of the headlines, the front of online trends, and ahead of his competitors in news coverage.
Look at the following marketing strategies through the lens of the Trump campaign and see if you don’t agree.
Trump’s political events have usually involved him walking out to “We Are The Champions”, but he could just as easily be walking out to Bonnie Rait’s “Let’s Give ‘Em Something To Talk About”. He thrives on attention: positive or negative.
In an Ad Age article, Trump is described as “a ‘natural showman’ [who] understands that being in headlines is more important than being loved or consistent.” He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight or from controversy. Negative publicity is still publicity. To illustrate, consider some of the outrageous things he has said throughout the course of his campaign:
- “[John McCain] is a war hero because he was captured.”
- Called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
- “I could shoot people and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
- “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
- “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
- And on Twitter:
Even before his political aspirations were made known, he became famous for saying, “You’re fired!” Nobody wants to hear that, but everybody waited for him to say it.
Still not convinced that it’s a marketing ploy? What about when he:
- Fired his campaign manager?
- Refused to denounce David Duke’s endorsement?
- Mocked a reporter with a disability?
Somehow he’s managed to hang his toes over the cliff’s edge of controversy and still not disqualify himself in a scandal. In so doing, the media does his advertising for him and he doesn’t have to pay for it. Marketing genius. Maybe not the PR an average person wants, but the strategy definitely generates attention.
Good marketing communicates a simple message
The average person on the street could probably tell you Trump’s campaign slogan. “Make America great again.” Why? Well, it’s not because he paid millions of dollars to have it plastered across television screens in all fifty states. He consistently said it in his speeches, wore it on his (unattractive) hat, and hashtagged it to death on Twitter. People remember because it’s simple and relatable, whether or not they plan to vote for him.
Trump’s team has even planned to use the slogan as the overarching theme for the convention this week. According to his campaign website, the daily themes are as follows:
- Make America safe again.
- Make America work again.
- Make America first again.
- Make America one again.
The simplicity means you could fill in the blank on this other phrase he’s owned: We’re going to build a _________, and ________ is going to pay for it.
None of the messaging in any other recent campaign compares. “I like Ike” is the closest runner-up. And even that message says little about the would-be President’s vision or goals.\
Good marketing spotlights the brand
Trump has honed his personal brand. He is unapologetic about who he is and is unashamedly self-promoting. He has managed to brand himself as a hard-nosed, brash, political outsider with no affinity whatsoever for political correctness. Many of his followers cite his willingness to “say it like it is” as a primary reason they like him. It’s consistent branding across all channels: speeches, interviews, and Tweets.
Not only has he branded himself as the leader who will make America great again, but he’s also managed to negatively brand his opponents by consistently using unflattering nicknames: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, and Goofy Elizabeth Warren (a.k.a. Pocahontas). These simple nicknames point to mistakes or character flaws he continues to reference in both speeches and on Twitter.
While many marketing executives shy away from name-calling, you see evidence of similar tactics used more subtly in television commercials for cable companies and cellular providers. It’s a way to show how one brand is distinct from others in the same industry. Trump is nothing if not distinct.
Good marketing taps into emotion
If you question whether or not good marketing deals with emotion, watch the Proctor and Gamble commercials during the Olympics, Hallmark commercials over the holidays, or any ASPCA ad. Capitalizing on emotion is a powerful tool.
The same Ad Age article states: “Mr. Trump might not be the poster child for actual authenticity, but recognizing authentic voter anger and tapping into it not only earns him consumer confidence, but also a lot of leeway.” He has managed to tap into the fear and anger many Americans already have… and maximize on it. Check out these Tweets:
In three Tweets (among many others) Trump managed to tap into the fear of more attacks like the one at Pulse, fear about lower wages, anger over immigration, and the fear of threats from ISIS. He’s played into the anger over job loss and wages and the fear of threats. And he’s done it all while blaming his opponent for the problems.
Good marketing effectively utilizes social media
Trump and his team managed to deploy all of the above mentioned marketing tactics on Twitter. Outlandish Tweets draw media attention, consistent hashtags communicate a simple message (The most recent hashtag Trump has in his toolbelt is #ImWithYou.), and the abrasive tone continues to spotlight his personal brand.
Back in September of 2015, even before the Republican field of candidates had narrowed, Trump held a Twitter Q&A, answering serious questions under the hashtag #AskTrump via video and ignoring the jokes and jabs that turned the hashtag into a trend… for free.
That’s the kicker.
He’s employed all of these marketing techniques, and maybe some gimmicks, without paying a fortune in advertising. This New York Times graph from March of this year shows how Trump has won the earned media race hands down.
Like I said in the beginning, I’m not taking sides on who will be the next president of the United States. I simply want to ask the question: was Melania’s “borrowed” speech a marketing scheme designed to acquire more earned media coverage or simply a speech writer who made a mistake? The episode definitely drew (free) attention to the speech and to Melania’s husband. It could be an embarrassing mishap or sheer marketing genius. Neither would be much of a surprise, considering. Donald’s pulling the strings of a media marionette like he’s been doing for years.