What Mr. Trump’s Success Teaches Us About Authentic Branding

Brand authenticity differentiates and is persuasive. But it’s hard to pull off.

Posted May 31, 2016

“It’s unsettling to encounter a prospective leader whose persona is so conspicuous and well defined and yet whose core is so obtuse.” – Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine.

Donald Trump supporters by Gage Skidmore Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Donald Trump supporters by Gage Skidmore Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Regardless of whether you adore Mr. Trump or hate him, and whether you agree with his ideas and support his candidacy for president, or reject them, one thing is indisputable: His rise from rank outsider with a slim chance of getting the Republican nomination ten months ago to presumptive nominee has been spectacular. Even President Obama took a longer and more painstaking path to win his party’s nomination eight years ago.

While many factors help explain Mr. Trump’s success in the GOP primaries, at least some success can be attributed to the personal brand-building techniques he has expertly employed over decades. In this post, I want to pinpoint perhaps the most important lesson that Mr. Trump’s (so far) successful political campaign teaches marketers about building strong brands. The lesson is this:

An authentic brand is a powerful differentiator and persuades target customers.

I should be clear. This branding lesson is not new. In fact, authenticity forms the fundamental building block of a strong brand.  But unlike most marketers who pay lip service to authenticity but chicken out at the first sign of difficulty, Mr. Trump has stayed the course and followed the authentic branding playbook through thick and thin, over decades.

And it is with this gutsy, long-term adherence to the authentic branding playbook that Mr. Trump provides marketers the most useful lesson in how to build a strong brand. (We can certainly argue whether his form of authenticity is good for the country, and so forth, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post).

What is brand authenticity?

One recent scholarly treatment of brand authenticity defined it as “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful towards itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves.”

Marketing experts will tell you that to be authentic, brands must remain consistent and honest to their own identities, and true to their target customers. They should stake claim to a bundle of meaningful attributes and values. And then they should convey and deliver these attributes and values sincerely each and every time, over and over again. Study after study shows that consumers trust authentic brands and are loyal to them. As marketing consultant James Gilmore pointed out, this is because “in an increasingly staged, contrived, mediated world,” we are starved for things and people that are genuine and sincere.

Mr. Trump is an Authentic Brand

If asked to describe Mr. Trump, we would ascribe qualities like “tycoon,” “powerful,” “no-nonsense,” “blunt,” “arrogant,” “pitiless,” “attention-seeking,” “boorish,” “grandiose showman,” “immovable,” “hard-hearted,” “ostentatious,” “decisive,” “courting controversy,” and so on.

What is noteworthy is the attributes that make us admire or loathe Mr. Trump today, as the case may be, are the very same attributes that he portrayed on “The Apprentice” television show in the mid-2000s and as a public figure during the 1990s. Even in his inconsistency about specific issues or responses, Mr. Trump is nothing if not consistent. Even in portraying insincerity and a penchant for flexibility (see the video above), he is sincere. The man running for President in 2016 is, in all respects, the same man (where his public persona is concerned) that was so popular on the Apprentice.

From a political perspective, this sort of long-lived consistency is a rare quality, and not to be found in his competitors. From a branding perspective, it is admirable, and an object lesson to marketers.

During his presidential campaign, time after time, when made to choose between being consistent with his persona versus doing what is more conventional and expected from politicians, he has unhesitatingly chosen persona consistency. As Mark Leibovich observed in the New York Times:

“It is a dilemma for the elected leaders, campaign strategists, credentialed pundits and assorted parasites of the ‘‘establishment.’’ They have a certain set of expectations, unwritten rules and ways of doing things that Trump keeps flouting in the most indelicate of ways.”

And when asked by Mr. Leibovich if his campaign conducted focus groups “his response was: “I do focus groups,’’ he said, pressing both thumbs against his forehead, ‘‘right here.’’” This sort of response may seem like arrogance personified, but it is what makes Mr. Trump authentic and is a major part of his appeal. With his attitude and actions, Mr. Trump checks off every box of the brand authenticity definition.

And the available statistics and results bear out the beneficial effects of Mr. Trump’s authenticity on his target audience. In one poll conducted in December 2015, more than three-quarters of GOP voters believed that Trump “says what he believes” rather than saying “what people want to hear.”

What Brand Marketers Can Learn from Mr. Trump

Marketers are notorious for proclaiming authenticity at every turn but being frequently inauthentic in the things that matter to their core customers. Whether it is an apparel company like Gap or H&M that claims to be socially conscious but uses slave labor to make its clothes, or an upscale grocer like Whole Foods that embraces sustainability but then throws away edible food instead of donating it to food banks, major brands routinely say one thing and do something else entirely.

Trump Tower by Danny Huizinga Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Trump Tower by Danny Huizinga Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

And many brands sing a particular tune, but change tunes at the first sign of trouble. There are many examples of this. American Apparel famously embarked on a user-generated search for a plus-sized model through a contest but then refused to recognize the contest’s legitimate winner because she didn’t fit their image. And last year, after supporting net neutrality for years, Netflix backtracked on its support because it would hinder its business interests. And companies like Nike and Apple continue to manufacture their products in factories in developing countries where workers often endure poor wages and working conditions despite consumer uproar.

Mr. Trump’s success teaches valuable lessons to all these brands in how to be authentic, and how such authenticity can lead to success under the right circumstances. Here are three key takeaways for brand marketers:

  1. Be consistent in what you say and what you do. I am reminded of the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”  The same idea applies to brand authenticity. Don’t just sprout buzz words and idealistic hype if you do not have the intention or ability to deliver on them. And if you don’t sincerely believe in something, don’t make it part of your core values, mission statement, or whatever.
  2. Stand for something. Whatever it is you want to stand for. Stake a claim on it. Embrace it even when some (or many) consumers do not share your principles and hate you for it. As long as you have a core base who share your viewpoint.
  3. When things get difficult, stay the course. Pivoting is counter-productive if you want to build an authentic brand. So is frequent re-branding and “brand refreshing.” In today’s environment, staying the course is difficult for most brands. Just look at all the flip-flopping JC Penney has done over the past few years. What Mr. Trump’s success teaches brand marketers more than anything else is once you have made a decision that is consistent with your brand’s values and your own principles, stick to it. Don’t just turn tail and change course at the first sign of trouble or controversy.

About Me

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.