Marketing Lessons from Donald Trump

 In Marketing Strategy

You hear it all the time from marketers – we don’t have enough budget. Unless you have a lot of money to spend, you can’t buy enough ads. Unless you have a lot of money to spend, you can’t attract the right talent to create awesome marketing materials. Unless you have a lot of money to spend, you can’t be noticed before the competition.

It’s a common complaint. And it’s not acceptable. It’s lazy. It’s an excuse for failing.

The idea that you can’t promote your product, service or idea without throwing a ton of money at it is just flat out wrong.

Case in point – the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump has spent far less than his opponents so far, and yet he has dominated the conversation. I guarantee that you have an opinion on Donald Trump. You may hate him, you may love him. You may not buy what he’s selling, but you know and understand what he’s selling. He has staked out a position, and you know what it is.

No matter how you or I feel about Trump, we have to agree that he’s compelling.

Really important aside: This is not a political column. I’m not getting into Trump’s worthiness as a candidate, whether or not he’d be good for the country, or whether I agree or disagree with his stances on issues. This post is focused on the fact – fact! – that Trump has created a compelling message and dominated the conversation despite being significantly outspent by is rivals.

2016 Pres Ad SpendingWhile the candidate often talks about how much money he has, he doesn’t spend a whole lot of it. The New York Times Upshot recently analyzed the ad spend for the presidential candidates so far this election season. Trump has spent a relatively measly $10 million. Compare that to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, both now out of the race. Bush spent $82 million; Rubio spent $55 million. The lesson here is obvious – just because you spend a lot of money on marketing doesn’t mean you will make a mark on the audience. It doesn’t mean you automatically will be victorious over competition that has less money.

So, how do you beat your competition if they have more money?

Step 1. Acknowledge that you need to find a different way, because you’re not going to be able to bludgeon the audience with your message. Quit complaining and get creative. For all of his talk about his billions, Trump has never seemed willing to match spending with other campaigns. Consequently, he’s focused on so-called free media – social media and earned media.

Step 2. Create an audience-focused message. Okay, so you don’t have a huge budget to raise awareness of your message. But if you can understand the psychology of your audience, and can find the core of what is keeping them awake at night, you have the opportunity to create a meaningful, emotional connection. If you insist on promoting your “innovative solutions,” well… get in line. No one will even hear you, because you’ll sound like everyone else.

Step 3. Make sure your message stands out from everyone else’s. Trump has been downright offensive during the campaign. Some people hear what he says and vow to never vote for him. Others hear what he says, know that he’s offending others, and love him all the more for it. I’m not suggesting you willingly antagonize your audience; however, you need to realize that if you’re trying to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one. You need to put a stake in the ground. You need to know what you stand for and then make it very clear to the audience.

Step 4. Be agile. Trump has created a lean operation that responds quickly. He has used social media and earned media far more effectively than any other candidate – maybe in history.

Step 5. Be courageous. If you only want to communicate in “perfect environments” and aren’t willing to take some risk, you probably won’t break through. Consider this exchange between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and former candidate Carly Fiorina – when Fiorina blamed the media for giving Trump all kinds of free publicity, Cooper pointed out that Fiorina’s campaign was unwilling to submit to interviews, whereas Trump almost always made himself available. Submitting to any media interview requires a willingness to relinquish some level of control. That can be scary – but it can also be a straighter path to the audience.

It’s time to stop worrying about your lack of budget, to realize you can still succeed. It requires getting creative and exercising those marketing muscles.

So, if you’re going to be rendered helpless because you “don’t have enough budget,” I have two words for you: You’re fired.

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John Miller
John Miller is the Founder of Scribewise, a part of Trellist Marketing + Technology. He blogs frequently on content marketing trends, the need for brands to build an audience, and general marketing topics. Email him at john@scribewise.com.
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Showing 5 comments
  • Rob Peters

    The marketing lesson of Donald Trump? Do not be like Donald Trump. Earn attention, trust, and relationship capital through competency, good intent, character, and proactivity. This is sustainable in a hyperconnected, transparent and morally interdependent world.

  • John Miller

    Rob- Thanks for the comment. I certainly hear what you’re saying, and I would question the sustainability of Trump’s approach. My point is that having a message that breaks through isn’t always about how much money you spend on advertising… IF you can come up with a compelling message. For a business (or a candidate. Or a country), you want to be sure you are making a promise you can keep.

  • Cindy Williams

    Please keep in mind that Trump already had an established brand to build on. That is a very helpful factor. However, I agree with you that you have to put your stake in the ground and stick with it. Also, learn what is keeping people up at night and address it with your brand. Trump has certainly mastered that.

    • John Miller

      Thanks for the comment Cindy! And, yes, good point – he wasn’t starting from zero. On the other hand, many people wouldn’t have called that a head start; they would’ve called it baggage 🙂

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