The Marketing Genius of Brand the Donald

For any serious student of marketing and media seeking a perfect pop culture storm, I give you the man currently dominating the race to be the U.S. Republican Party's 2016 presidential candidate.
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For any serious student of marketing and media seeking a perfect pop culture storm, I give you the man currently dominating the race to be the U.S. Republican Party's 2016 presidential candidate. Before Donald Trump wisecracked and bad-mouthed his way to global media prominence as the political maverick of the moment, he had already had a decade of celebrity as the host and hard-assed boss of the reality show "The Apprentice." And before that, he had made megabucks as a real estate developer and dealmaker.

To be crystal clear, I emphatically hold no brief for him politically or personally (and my partner is such a crazed Democrat that he will not allow my Ivanka Trump pumps--designed by the Donald's daughter--in our closet).

But in my marketing communications professional role, I am full of amazement. As a man selling his ideas and his personal brand, Trump is a bona fide media genius. Whether by accident or intention, he has sparked a gazillion conversations around the subject of what's real.

There's no doubting the reality of his towering real estate portfolio. Nor is there any doubt that he's really, really rich. (There has been a lot of debate about how rich--"The real number is $10 billion," Trump says.) There's a lot more doubt about whether his hair is real, although he seems to have proved that it's no rug. And people wondered whether Trump was really intending to run for president or just pulling a PR stunt. If it does eventually turn out to have been a stunt, it's one of the most stunningly successful personal brand campaigns I've ever seen. Then there's the question of whether he really means all the stuff he says about the other candidates or is just trash-talking, like a boxer prefight.

But here's the zinger: People like him because even though he's larger than life--hyperreal, you might say--they can relate to him. People struggling to pay their bills can relate to this billionaire. Not everybody does, to be sure, but enough people to give him a massive lead in the polls. He's aspirational. His fans admire his wealth, his quick wit, his sense of humor and his determination to make his own rules.

In an arena where politicians are trained to mouth talking points, with one eye on their base and the other on their polling numbers, Donald Trump seems for real. For all his billions and massive real estate holdings and private jets, Americans find him more normal and more real than pretty much any other politician. He just comes out and says what he really thinks and feels regardless of whether it comes off as boastful, insulting, sexist, racist or threatening. He has been compared with the ragingly popular badass honey badger that's an enduring YouTube sensation.

It takes a lot of practice to be as apparently real and authentic as Donald Trump on all those talk shows and at all those political rallies. In those situations, most normal people would fumble and stumble and look uncomfortable, or they would appear too slick and polished, as so many politicians do. Let's face it: Standing up and addressing millions of people is unreal.

In marketing terms, Brand the Donald is bold in his vision but vague on implementation details. It's déjà vu for me; in 1997, I was a small strategic cog in the wheel that produced Apple's "Think Different" campaign and globalized it. Back then, Steve Jobs had as much of a shot at rebooting Apple as Donald Trump has today of restoring America. But raise your hand if you own an iPhone, iMac, iPod or iPad. I've seen the impossible happen before, and fast.

Like Jobs, the Donald knows that vision and charisma work fine for a couple of reasons: At this point in the electoral process/purchase funnel, people aren't looking for specifics. They're scanning for broad feature areas (for Trump, that means immigration, jobs, freedom, etc.), for whether the brand talks their language (he does) and for whether the brand has momentum (he does). Only later, when it comes closer to voting/buying, will they ask themselves whether the brand can deliver. The election is still far away, but it's looking increasingly likely that American voters will think yes, the Donald can really deliver.

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