Brands in the News

Branding Advice for Donald Trump

23 May 2016  

Many people think Donald Trump has no chance of winning the upcoming presidential election. For example, the topic came up at a party I was at last weekend, and the consensus was that Trump has no chance.

Polls certainly suggest this is the case. At the moment, they show that he will lose against either Clinton or Sanders. With his polarizing brand perceptions, it seems Trump is doomed.

But here’s the thing—brands reposition all the time. Trump is actually following a classic strategy for building a great brand: start small and then grow.

The strategy goes like this:

— It is difficult to launch a new product with a broad, general message. This sort of positioning isn’t likely to get anyone excited, and the established players will respond.

— A niche launch is more promising. You can identify a small group of people with similar interests and meet their needs. This will cultivate great enthusiasm and loyalty within a subset of consumers. Existing players often don’t react because you aren’t a threat. You are going after just one small group.

— Once you have a solid place in a niche, you can broaden your appeal by reaching more people and becoming a bit less polarizing. You adjust the offering and the message. You continue to be different and unique, just not quite as narrow in focus.

— Over time, you can expand to more and more of the market and—on occasion—become a dominant player.

This is a common formula in the world of branding. Nike did this. The brand started with a small, narrow focus on top-notch runners and then grew. Whole Foods, Lululemon, Tesla, and Apple have all utilized this strategy. Established player Porsche has broadened its brand in recent years, as well.

Donald Trump is using the same strategy. Trump gained initial traction by being highly polarizing. He tailored his message to a certain segment of voters. Most established candidates didn’t respond to Trump because Donald was going after such a small group of people that he wasn’t an obvious threat.

With this strategy, Trump secured the Republican nomination. The mainstream vote fragmented among a number of different candidates, and Trump owned a segment.

The challenge is that Trump can’t win the general election with a niche strategy. He has to capture a majority.

So now Trump needs to broaden his appeal. He should do three things:

Back away from polarizing positions

Trump should ease back on controversial policies. He has already said he is very willing to change his mind on different questions, so he could certainly do this. Ideas like banning Muslims from the country make little sense. He could change this concept to simply strengthening the visa process, something many people would agree with.

Reach out to new groups

Attracting new people is essential if Trump is going to win the election. He now needs to reach out to the mainstream. He has already started to do this, spending time in Washington with the Republican establishment.

After the Republican convention, Trump should go directly after skeptical voters and attack some safe Democratic areas. An interesting idea: perhaps Trump should embrace a liberal social agenda, supporting things like same-sex marriage and choice.

Retain core elements of the brand

Trump must remain Trump. He can’t now become a somber, dull candidate, reciting the typical statements. He should continue to use social media and say provocative things. Labeling his opponents has proven to be very effective; he should continue to do this. The hat needs to stay.

This all won’t be easy. Most brands take years to shift perceptions and broaden their appeal. Trump has to do it in a few months.


Next week: advice for Hillary Clinton.

2 Responses

  1. Amrit Plaha Chavada says:

    Brilliantly written! However, I do think it’ll be a huge challenge for him to appeal to newer groups without alienating his core audience.

  2. Tom says:

    Chillingly compelling, Tim. When we do this for typical business product selling it seems so benign; not in this context though…same theories, same theories. Yikes. Looking forward to you Clinton review.

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