Regardless of the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, marketers, communicators, social media mavens, salespeople and others of the influence industries can draw moral and object lessons from the phenomenon of Donald Trump and the counter-intuitive plays Hillary Clinton ran to best him. What Clinton figured out is that debate more than dialog and counter-intuition more than convention is what beats bad boy competitors.
As organized in The Standard Table of Influence, the strategies that playmakers employ can often be placed on a spectrum that spans from agreeable to debatable. I call this fit and friction. For the larger part of her campaign, Clinton used only drive-by rhetoric to de-position The Donald. He's bad for America. He has no plan. He's got to be stopped. She'd then revert to the comfort of her own life's story and her many wonky policies. She looked more for positive associations and surrogates, like pop idol Katy Perry, than the negative. But polled voters didn't like her, not really. And Trump was setting the tone, never mind that his messages were devoid of the policies and positions by which candidates are normally judged. His game was high-friction. Hillary's was high-fit. And he was gaining.
Over the final months of campaigning, however, Hillary's competitive calculus changed. She figured out what I observed in November of 2015 -- that the way to beat The Donald is not to deny his candidacy but to encourage it. She rewrote her playbook, now determined to engage the trash-talking New Yorker. The gloves would come off, though subtly. She was going to jab strategically, not punch wildly Marco Rubio style.
THE HIGH-FRICTION PLAYMAKER Some of the 24 strategies in The Elements of Influence are not for the faint of heart. They are counter-intuitive contra plays (see graphic), higher risk with higher reward, and generally requiring courage to run. Baits are akin to poking a bear. And speaking of bears, bear hugs mandate the giving of congratulations to another player, usually a competitor. Call outs make it personal, not professional. Crazy ivans are used to rush at, not away from, a problem. Discos involve the deliberate confession of an error. Similarly, lanterns require the preemptive disclosure of a flaw or fault. The pause is often for shutting up just when the urge to shout out is keenest.
Looking back at the Republican primaries, few of the 18 GOP pretenders ever committed to these plays. Whether it was Jeb Bush's anemic deflections of Donald's killer labels or Ted Cruz's early and more clever drafting of Trump, most of their influence strategies were employed to ignore the insurgent or feed off his energy. To take on Trump was akin to breaking an age-old marketing myth -- that to dignify a competitor is to help him. Wrestle with a pig and you both get dirty, they reasoned. Except that in disengaging from Donald Trump they placed themselves and their candidacies outside the tents that Trump was so capably packing. The showman billionaire was the context. Not his rivals.
THE MYTH OF MITIGATION In my private sector work, this syndrome also abounds. Corporations, even the most sophisticated, prefer a mitigation-evasion model over something more provocative. And they get rolled accordingly, sometimes by the smallest of players. Think of the pharmaceutical giants, like Pfizer and GSK, who are unwilling to prosecute their case for life-saving drugs in fear of shrill animal rights activists, such as PETA and HSUS. Think of the once-celebrated tech darlings, like Dell and even Cisco, who are now being challenged by tiny and unprofitable IPO start-ups, like Nutanix and SimpliVity. Think of our defense analysts and diplomats whose play-safe strategies offer no apparent dilution of terrorist propaganda. None seem capable of abandoning the high-fit plays that are thought to win hearts and minds. None seem willing to risk the alternatives found in counter-intuitive influence strategies (i.e., contra plays).
Whether it's marketing in the private sector or politicking in the public square, traditional influence plays are failing. Deflects are detectable. Filters are obvious, too. Screens are self-serving. Pings are less-than subtle. In other words, both consumers and voters are wary of the brands and sellers that patronize their interests. The vain attempts by product managers and politicos to earn their affections are too clearly disingenuous and often inappropriate (e.g., Dove soap for aging women and oil-soaked birds).
This may be why negative engagement is emerging as an opportunity to influence, not a threat to finesse. Those rascaly customers are not really on what high-fit marketers call a journey. They're in a reality cage match. Their struggle is what's really happening. They are the context. They are where the game must be played to advance competitive advantage, brand loyalty and reputational excellence. But how?
HILLARY vs. DONALD This is what Clinton came to understand and perfect, albeit in the nick of time. Hillary ultimately saw that The Donald was more beatable by making him larger, not smaller. She trusted that in his ultimate form Trump was more of a caricature and an icon of self-interest than a patriot or savior. So against conventional wisdom she engaged him to encourage him.
Her plays were subtle call outs dressed as innocent fiats (e.g., Your supporters are deplorable. You got $14 million from your dad. You haven't paid your taxes. You shamed a beauty queen.) Her overarching play was the bait and, no doubt, is was intended to generate disagreement and drama. Like a shark, Trump was drawn to her lures and he immediately bit and fought back. Despite his brags -- that when hit by others he hits back harder -- Hillary finally fought, too. As in the second debate she sometimes struggled, but so did he and what became more evident through their encounters was that Trump wasn't as strong as most thought and -- this most important reveal -- his logic was faulty. There is, after all, no way to dismiss the bigotry of his base, the privilege of his father's largesse, no way to deny his tax evasions, and no excuse for his slander of Miss Universe. Hillary's high-friction plays drew respect, even from Trump, and the commentary that resulted served to showcase her inherent bravery and Trump's cowardice. Finally, she was interesting, perhaps even more trustworthy.
For pharmas battling chimp lovers, for legacy IT vendors confronting clever startups, and for information warriors befuddled by terrorist spin, there's an entire category of influence strategies that can shift a player's position from defense to offense. Hillary Clinton proved it. It took awhile, but she knows now that the way to play a predator is to engage it, not ignore it. Marketers, PR pros and ad men take heed.
Graphic courtesy of Playmaker Systems, LLC