Four Business Lessons We Can Learn From Trump’s Election Victory

You might as well read this column, because you’re not getting any work done today anyway.

Your head hurts. Your friends warned you against drinking that seventh tequila shot last night, either as you danced shirtless at the Trump victory party, or as you sat stupefied in front of your TV set, trying to make sense of what just happened. Michigan?!  Pennsylvania?!

Your stomach feels funny. Even if you’re the most ardent Trump supporter, you probably didn’t see this coming. And now everything you thought was unquestionably true just turned out not to be. It’s a bit frightening.

You’re a wreck. You need to pull yourself together.

Maybe you’ll feel better if you try to learn some lessons from all this. I’m not talking about political lessons. Leave that to the Beltway pundits and editorial columnists who are now questioning their career choices.

I’m talking about business lessons. You know, stuff you can actually use when the heavy fog of your hangover finally lifts.

So here it goes—four lessons you can learn (or relearn) from this campaign.

Everything starts with a strong positioning. What’s a positioning, you ask? Don’t let your marketing people make this complicated. It’s really as simple as defining what are you for and what are you against.

Great brands (and political campaigns) are unambiguously clear about this. Apple, for example, has always been for uncompromising design and against conformity—or least it was when Steve Jobs was alive.

A strong positioning is difficult to achieve because it requires sacrifice. What customers are you willing to ignore? What markets are you willing to forego? Don’t be seduced into believing you can be everything to everybody. Unless you’re Amazon, of course. The conventional wisdom does not apply to Amazon.

And don’t forget about differentiation. You can’t position yourself successfully if you land right on top of your competition. Your prices are great and your staff are friendly? Nobody will care because they’ve heard that promise a million times before. Find something different. Find the open ground.

Say whatever you want about Mr. Trump, but you have to admit that from the beginning of his campaign he has been perfectly clear about what he was for and what he was against. Many people found those positions to be objectionable, but everyone, even the most ambivalent bystanders, could articulate the basics of his platform. What presidential candidate could make the same claim? St. Ronnie? Maybe.

And differentiation? Has any candidate in recent history run on such an unconventional grouping of planks? A protectionist (blue), anti-immigration (red), hawkish (red), working-class champion (blue)? No political consultant could have ever dreamed it up, much less recommended it.

You are not your target (most of the time, anyway.) I recently participated in a strategy session with the leadership of a consumer products company. We started the conversation by trying to define the target customer.  The CEO described her as a 50 year-old woman with teenagers in the house who is well educated, attends yoga classes, and goes on periodic vacations to Mexico with her girlfriends.

This company’s current customer data were quite different. The customers were much older (average age over 70) and much poorer.  The CEO, perhaps unconsciously, had described herself.

To be fair, the exercise was focused on defining the customer target, not the current customer profile, so it could be a legitimate strategy to define the new target so differently. But only if it’s a deliberate, carefully considered decision.  In many instances, business leaders project their own tastes and needs onto their customers, which can be a terrible mistake.

Could all the pollsters, pundits, and opinion columnists be accused of the same? Were they projecting their own values and preferences onto the electorate they were supposed to be dispassionately observing?

Clearly Mr. Trump didn’t make this mistake. He knew that his target was less educated white men and kept his messaging entirely focused on them.  Even more impressively, he understood his target’s condition and never confused it with his own—a remarkable feat for a Manhattanite who gets spray tans and flies around in a corporate jet.

Don’t believe market research (or political polls) when the topic is vice or virtue. I’ve written about this topic before. Everyone wants to feel like they’re a good person and above average in every way. And we all respond to society’s sanctions, even if we consider ourselves to be rebels.

When faced with a barrage of messages declaring that a vote for Trump would be crazy or stupid, some people will stick out their chin and defy the pressure, but others will hide their intentions, consciously or unconsciously.

We saw this with Brexit, and we’re seeing it with Trump’s victory.  Remember this the next time you conduct a survey with your customers. If you’re asking them how often they eat cookies, or how many books they read to their children, or what percentage of their income they donate to charity, don’t believe what they tell you.

Traditional advertising media are dead. Well, maybe not dead, but certainly maimed and going into shock.

Secretary Clinton outspent Trump in traditional media by a massive margin. We don’t know the final tally, but if the early spending is any indication, the gap will be huge. Through the end of July, she had aired $70 million worth of television advertising. During the same period, he didn’t produce a single ad.

Trump ran a campaign fueled entirely by public relations and social media. It was a perfect tactic for his positioning. All he had to do was say a bunch of things that had never been said in a presidential campaign and the rest took care of itself. Even if Trump fails spectacularly as a president, he will get historical credit for reinventing the tactics of political campaigning.

 

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