11 November 2016 11:09:06 IST

What is Donald Trump teaching us?

Marketers need to realise that consumers don’t think the way you want them to

A couple of days ago, Donald Trump won the US presidential elections. The reactions ranged from disbelief to horror to fear to dismay. The educated class, the political analyst, the media and Hillary Clinton got it completely wrong — they had written him off.

Let me quickly tell you that I have no political leanings, knowledge or the slightest interest in politics. My obsession is with marketing and communication — period. Let’s look at Trump’s victory from this perspective. I am sure you will find enough food for thought here.

Love me or hate me

An expression I love quoting is “Love me or hate me but for God’s sake don’t ignore me!” Can anyone ignore an in-your-face Trump? Another quote by Bill Bernbach is relevant here: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you”.

Donald stood for something, even if the educated intelligentsia didn’t bother to pay enough attention to what his beliefs were. They were busy tweeting jokes while he was busy appealing to people’s emotions. And we all know the outcome.

A single-minded thought

“Great advertising is produced by a single-minded thought that comes alive in a compelling way,” Tim Bell, an advertising great of my time, had said. And that’s gospel truth as far as I am concerned.

What did Trump say? “Let’s make America great again” — a line as simple as ache din or garibi hatao . This always brings to fore an important point — that when you are talking to millions, the simpler your message, the greater are the chances of success. What was Hillary’s single-minded thought? I didn’t get it. Did you?

Missing the wood for the trees

Perhaps the UK’s biggest failure in recent times was Brexit, which saw the English polarised, with many wanting to stay on their own. Similarly, with both Obama and Clinton, in America, one saw an inability to understand that the average Johnny doesn’t care for globalisation.

The American voter has probably never heard of “the world is flat”, much less care for it. . This person cares about his/her own job, and Trump’s talk about immigration hit home, as the insecure American blames immigrants for his current state of affairs. Playing on people’s fears seems to have worked. But who knows what might actually happen now that Trump is president?

Spend smartly

In the early stages of the campaign, the Hillary camp was almost gloating over its ability to outspend Donald Trump and consistently kept overspending. Does advertising work? Does it make a difference to voters? It probably does. How else can one reach millions of viewers? Of course my personal view, despite being a great admirer of the discipline (advertising), is that in elections, its value might be overstated, as Hillary Clinton would have discovered.

People in ivory towers

I think one of the greatest challenges in marketing is that people carry their baggage with them. They carry their own prejudices, biases and beliefs wherever they go. Let me give you my personal example.

I am convent educated, did my Masters in Economics at Loyola College and went to IIM Bangalore. So bloody what! I am not the consumer. It is about my consumer who is reading page 3, watching what, according to me, is a lousy serial. So I must focus on him/her and not on myself. And this is really what the Clinton supporters, analysts and most certainly the media, got wrong.

They focused on the outlandish statements made by Trump, laughed at them and thought the world too was laughing with them. The world might have thought that way, but the average voter is not on Twitter. Trump struck a chord in the average voter.

Let me give you an analogy from the world of advertising. Below is an old ad that most of educated India hated. They said “How dare they?” and protested loudly. This was for ‘Fair & Lovely’. But it hit the Indian girl in the gut because it was about her and offered her hope. She went out and bought it by the dozen.



Hope for the future

Yes, hope is a great emotion in life and that is how India voted a couple of years ago and how America voted this week. Only time will tell whether the hopes will be realised or belied. But it is a big lesson for all pollsters and marketers who are too full of themselves and their pet theories to see that the greatest challenge is to understand the consumer.

The consumers are different and they will behave in the manner they wish to, not the way you want them to, simply because we think we are smarter.

Donald Trump has made many of us eat humble pie and full credit to him. Let’s hope too that our worst fears don’t come true!