Is Donald Trump a branding guru that market research should follow?

Feb 03 2017

Perhaps the most important thing that Donald Trump has shown us all is the importance of being different and distinctive from your competitors. In a recent article on hbr.org, Roger Martin argues that Trump didn’t win because of a bad Clinton strategy, celebrity obsession or Russian hackers (although they may have contributed). Donald Trump won because people wanted change and he “positioned” his brand as the change and anti-establishment candidate.

Everything he did during the campaign was to reframe the debate about outsiders versus insiders and political correctness, consistently positioning himself as the politically incorrect candidate. He argued that political correctness is about failing politics, while political incorrectness is about success. Whether deliberately or not is not important, he was probably just being himself.

More importantly, his positioning was trumpeted (no pun intended) across the media for free, drowning out other messages and giving him free advertising, because of the political incorrectness of the message. Roger Martin goes further to argue that the attacks on him by his opponents only served to reinforce his message and his positioning. Any politically correct candidate would have apologized and demurred to precedent (or is that president?), but he knew better and refused to show even a glimmer of correctness.

All these tactics follow some of the classic brand guidebooks to the letter. In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that great brands are first to category, often creating their own category in the process, are focused on their message, and understand the importance of what customers remember rather than what the brand says.

More recently, marketing science has focused on the importance of mental and physical availability, being top of mind in a customer’s mind, being easily identifiable with distinct assets and being easy to access (as Byron Sharp and others have written). While access is not hard to achieve in a presidential election (everyone, or almost everyone gets the opportunity to vote), Trump most certainly was top-of-mind, had a very clearly identifiable style and used his behaviour to dominate the airwaves.

While being different has been a brand mantra for some time, recent thinking has questioned whether being different is enough. My personal view is that being different is a good thing, provided you are also relevant to your customers (buying behavior is goal-directed as is all behavior). I have seen brands try and be very different, but if this doesn’t match customer aspirations they are likely to ignore you or, at worst, reject you. Although Trump’s message of political correctness and alienated voters was uncomfortable and unpleasant for many, very few disagree that he spoke to an underlying truth about a large group of the electorate (as Bernie Sanders had done in the primaries).

Many market researchers know much of this best practice. We advise clients to make brands distinctive (relevant and unique) and to focus on a core story that has resonance with customers. We advise them to repeat the message, and to make their brand meaningful in consistent communication and customer experience.

So how good are market research companies in applying this thinking to their own brand strategies? Like many reading this article, I receive many emails every week from research suppliers advising me of their great services, and often for meetings or calls to. Nearly every one offers themselves as a “full service” agency without any clear focus or positioning. Am I likely to remember them next time I need to outsource work?

Kantar have recently put all their brands under one brand platform. Arguably, this was because of internal efficiencies, but it might be that most of the original brands under the Kantar umbrella lacked a distinctive positioning, with the notable exception of Millward Brown which now potentially faces some brand dilution. In my humble opinion, having a pink colored logo, doesn’t make you distinctive unless you stand for something and sends a different message from a square shape.

The same is true for small and medium sized agencies. I live in Singapore where there too many agencies (including TapestryWorks). Many boutique agencies have come and gone in recent years, often very similar in terms of what they do and what they offer. At worst, they try and offer everything, ensuring that they are remembered for nothing.

Is your company clearly positioned with distinctive and consistent point-of-voice? Will there ever be a Donald Trump of the market research industry? That would be truly unpresidented.

P.S. Watch out for more articles on the symbolism of Donald Trump soon

REFERENCES

The 22 Immutable Laws Of Branding by Al Ries & Jack Trout

“How the attacks on Trump reinforce his strategy” by Roger Martin at hbr.org

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

[This article was originally written for Asia Research Magazine]

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